Lessons in Hope and Trust
Written by Megan Kennedy-Farrell
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13
Hope and trust. These two words ran through my mind constantly throughout our recent Oncological Surgery Mission Trip (OSMT) as I saw patients hoping for one last chance at life and renewed health; as hospital administrators and local surgeons opened their O.R. to partners they had never met, trusting that together they could achieve something that was not possible alone; and as families generously taught our mission team about both hope and trust, even when the outcomes they longed for were not to be.
The 10-member OSMT team included two surgeons, two anesthesiologists, one surgical physician’s assistant, two translators, one supplies coordinator, one chaplain, and our team leader. Together with our colleagues from the Santa Cruz office of Puente de Solidaridad and the surgeons, fellows, residents, nurses, and anesthesiologists of the Cancer Institute of Eastern Bolivia, we were privileged to serve 14 patients requiring widely diverse but highly complex surgeries. The lives and stories of these patients and their beautiful families touched me deeply.
Early in the trip, general surgeon Dr. John Gregory operated on a young man named Victor. At age 18, Victor was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the colon. Surgery at the time left him cancer free, but with a colostomy. He described to us the challenges of life over the next seven years and the deep despair he often felt when he lost all hope for a normal, healthy life. On Monday, March 12, he underwent a laparoscopic ostomy reversal that restored his digestive tract to normal function. At the closing ceremony, with tears streaming down his youthful face, Victor expressed deep gratitude and hope for his new life ahead.
The O.R. on Tuesday morning was a crowded scene. Under the leadership of Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria, the entire Solidarity Bridge medical team joined forces with Bolivian ENT surgeon Dr. Carolina Jerez and her colleagues to perform a radical excision of a malignant tumor of the right neck on a young woman. Maribel, a soft-spoken 23-year-old, covered her very large tumor with a beautiful scarf. Her mom told me that the tumor, which had been present since birth, suddenly morphed and grew rapidly over recent months. The family had traveled all over Bolivia visiting doctors and seeking help, but Maribel’s case was complex and they believed this was their last hope. Her tumor was now pushing on her trachea and esophagus, affecting her ability to breathe and to eat.
After an eight-hour-plus surgery, Dr. Bilimoria shared with Maribel’s mother, brother, and sister that the entire tumor as well as a second tumor on the other side of her neck had been successfully removed. When the team visited Maribel a couple of days later and asked to take a photo, she proudly posed with the right side of her neck in full view, with no need to hide it under a scarf.
The week concluded with another long and complicated case. On Friday, Dr. Bilimoria worked with Dr. José Roldan Copa Lobatón to perform a radical excision of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor with resection of the distal pancreas, spleen, diaphragm, and part of the liver. This was 64-year-old Iver’s fourth surgery. Married with two beautiful young adult daughters, Iver is one of 15 children and clearly a friend to many. The wooden benches in the small waiting area outside the surgical suite were filled with his many loved ones from early morning, when he was taken into pre-op, until late into the afternoon when surgery was over and their names were finally called. “The surgery went very well,” Dr. Bilimoria told this loving, familial crowd huddled in the doorway. “When we were finished, there was no cancer that we could see with our eyes or feel with our hands.” What a privilege it was to be an observer of this joyous and hope-filled scene.
But not all of the patients with whom we were privileged to journey found their hopes realized in the ways they anticipated. Two patients, Luis, 61, and Adolfo, 37, had tumors that had spread in ways that made their removal impossible. After brainstorming every possible scenario, the joint US and Bolivian team determined that there were no surgical options and had to deliver this heartbreaking news to the patients and their families. Yet even in these devastating situations, I was privileged to dwell in spaces of hope and trust with these families. Threaded with sadness and despair was an ever-present faith in a God whose vision lies beyond our own. Along with tears shed by a father who adores his two young children and wants to journey with them into old age, was trust in a God who would not abandon him to suffer alone.
On Saturday morning, our team departed from the hospital for the last time. We cannot say for sure what lies ahead for these patients who have become dear to each of us. Their health remains fragile and for some, their recoveries long. But we do know that they are in the trusted hands of our partners at Puente de Solidaridad and the Cancer Institute. And as a mission organization, we continue, in our hearts and souls, to accompany these patients, families, and medical providers as we hope and trust that healing will come.
Megan Kennedy-Farrell is senior director for mission and identity at Solidarity Bridge.