Friday, May 18, 2012

The Power of the Powerless

I remember reading a story about a rather wealthy Indian lady who volunteered to work for Mother Teresa for a day, back in the years before Mother Teresa was an international celebrity. This Indian lady arrived at the clinic, which was a house for the dying, and was instantly overwhelmed by what she saw, heard and smelled. I know how she felt, too. Walking into a place like that is an instant sensory barrage of horror and evil. The evil, ugliness and pain are all very sensory phenomena, with their accompanying groans and screams, odors and wounds. The peace and love that the patients experience for the first time in their lives is much harder to see. The sight of raw flesh of a beggar who got run over by a truck is easier to notice than the fact that his wounds have been painstakingly cleaned of dirt, maggots and infection;  emaciated arms and ribs of a man who should weigh 70 kgs but instead weighs barely 30kgs hide the fact that he has just received the first good meal of his life, spoonfed by a woman who has dedicated her life to loving him; the smell of a human being in total kidney failure when his uric wastes are oozing through his pores on his skin disguises the fact that he has just been bathed today for the first time in his life. All of these things are a shock to the system. Even a trained and experienced medical practitioner can be overwhelmed walking into such a scene. Where do you start? What do you do? But this rich lady was a lay person, just an upper caste woman who had a kind urge and decided to volunteer for a day. I can only imagine what she must have been feeling as she stood there, surrounded by the obvious horror of human suffering. She must have been terrified, bewildered, filled with sorrow and helplessness. She must have wanted to turn around, run right back out the door, and never come back.

Fortunately there was something else at work, subtly, quietly, faithfully hidden under the obvious horror. Mother Teresa took this lady by the hand and led her to the most heartbreaking patient of all. A newborn infant was lying on a cushion, alone. Perhaps his parents had abandoned him, or perhaps they were dead. This was not a healthy baby. He was lethargic and emaciated. He did not cry or flail his tiny arms around. He did not startle the way a normal baby should, or grasp with his hands, or even suckle when a nipple or finger was put to his lips. He just lay there with his arms and legs spread out limply around him, breathing with the halting, abrupt, shallow gasps of a baby for whom simply breathing takes too much energy to be worthwhile.

Mother Teresa led the rich lady to this baby and told her simply to pick the baby up and hold him and love him for the few minutes or hours he had left to live. The rich lady protested that she couldn't possibly do that. It would surely break her heart. Mother Teresa only repeated her invitation, and went about her work. Left there in front of the dying infant the rich lady made a choice. She reached down and took that baby in her arms and held him. For the rest of the day she did nothing but love that baby as hard as she could until finally he died in her arms. And her heart broke, but not with anguish as she had expected. It broke with love.

I read this as I was in the first half of the SF medic training course, and it forever changed my view of medicine and healing. As healthcare providers we are trained to save lives. Our thought and energy are bent on staving off death for as long as we can, prolonging life, reducing pain, preventing or mitigating disabilities. All true healers have this goal, but all of us inevitably face the truth that our patients are going to die. Put it off as long as we can, prescribe what we will, in the end death will win. We can only delay it. Sometimes we can delay it for years. Sometimes only for minutes. Sometimes the patient is already dead, but their body just hasn't figured that out yet.

Faced with this truth, each health care provider, from the lowest EMTB to the Surgeon General (who generally does very little surgery from what I hear) has to find his own way of dealing with it. Some choose to ignore it. Some simply shrug their shoulder and move on. Some stop caring eventually. But in Mother Teresa's radical and almost unforgiveable request I believe I have seen the only true way forward. We must look deeply into the horror of death and see past it to the subtle, patient, silent work of love which is operating underneath the horror and pain, stronger and older and wiser than them. In the truly authentic Catholic approach to healthcare there is the acknowledgment that the patient will die, and the deeper knowledge that love is stronger than death. Even if the patient will only live for a few seconds, those few seconds can be lived with dignity. They can be filled with life and love and peace, if someone is brave enough to let God use them to be that gift. Such moments are never wasted.

All of this went through my mind when I saw this video by Tammy Ruiz a Registered Nurse who specializes in Perinatal Bereavement and Perinatal Hospice. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I couldn't watch the full video without tears in my eyes. The work she does is beautiful, heroic and necessary, and alas, all too rare.

Please watch the video and pass it on particularly to any medical proffessionals who are involved in birth and perinatal care. Pray for Mrs. Ruiz and the continuation of her vocation, which is truly a call within a call. Take the time to celebrate life in whatever way you can. This is a solid, concrete answer to the culture of death and a joyful affirmation of the infinite value of every single human person, no matter how small.

Go here to read Mrs. Ruiz's own words on her work.

(The Title of this post is taken from the title of the amazing book by Christopher De Vinck.)


  1. You are right that there arent enough...we need someone who does this in every city. There are about 120 programs in the US and you can find them in a state by state list at There are also volunteer ministries that work with people at a distance if there is no local program.

    If you want to do something to encourage this care model in your town, purchase a copy of "A Gift of Time", a book by Davis and Kuebelbeck. You can give it to your OB physician, local Perinatology office or ask your local hospitals Labor & Delivery unit who does loss follow up and give that nurse the book. Your local hospice might also be looking into starting a program.

  2. This is incredible. I'm so glad this is available. An amazing pro-life mission. Thank you so much for posting this.