Dripping wet scrubs slapped against my legs as I walked into the room.
“Mr. Rodriguez?” I mumbled with no effort to sound more confident than I felt.
It was my first day in the Surgical ICU. I had risen at 3:30 that morning and made a dark drive in a San Antonio downpour to get there. Arriving I found the hospital parking lot now a wide river. Tardiness in this case was worse than absence so I took off my socks and stuck them in my bag, rolled up my pants, huddled under my short coat and made a dash for it.
Arriving soggy didn’t seem to raise an eyebrow on the floor buzzing with residents who had been up all night closing bullet holes and performing brain surgery. “Why don’t you see room 4?” they told me finally as I wrung out my ponytail. “He is stable, we are just babysitting until we can find placement and ship him back across the border.”
I started down the hall, my shoes squeaking.
Mr. Rodriguez whose first name was Juan* looked like any other 35 year old Mexican man. His beard was neatly trimmed, his dark hair was slicked back. He had tired eyes peeking through thick earth colored skin, a scar across his right cheek and in the middle of his neck was a strap holding a ventilator tube in place attaching him to a machine which was rhythmically heaving mechanical breaths into his chest.
Juan was what they call a “Wetback”. He had swum the river, crossed the Rio Grande at night. He was spotted, ran and took a fall, a mishap which left him with no feeling or movement below his neck.
I wrote down the numbers from the equipment that now maintained his body, the urine catheter, the IV pump, the sighing ventilator. I tried not to think about what it would feel like to be in his place. I wondered what he had hoped for when he rolled up his pants and plunged into the river, what it felt like to be confident enough to try to outrun a team of armed guards, I wondered if he wished they had left him for dead.
I attempted small talk in my broken Spanish but with his diaphragm partially paralyzed Juan was too weak to breathe on his own and he struggled to whisper even a few raspy words. I lifted the sheet and saw his once strong body now limp. He had come to the US to work construction hearing there was good money in it, he wanted a better life for his wife and 4 children. I listened to his heart and lungs. I knew that once he moved to a nursing home in Mexico not having the ability to even cough for himself a pneumonia would likely end his life. Today though his lungs were clear, his abdomen soft, and skin intact. A bedsore would be his next danger, the weight of his bones would eventually press through dissolving his own flesh.
As I moved to leave he muttered something and though I couldn’t make it out his eyes pointed to the tray table in front of him. I moved my hands over the items, a cup with a straw, a hand mirror, a wire hair brush. At the brush he mumbled again and I picked it up and brought it near to him and he jutted out his chin.
“Mi barba,” he whispered.
Awkwardly I held the brush closer. He tilted his head back and began to rub his beard across the wires. He closed his eyes and for a few seconds moved his chin back and forth, then with a comfortable look nodded again and his lips mouthed a silent, “gracias.”
I smiled acting like I wasn’t being crushed under the weight of my own helplessness, as if I helped paralyzed people scratch their chins everyday. I walked out shivering for something other than my damp clothes and put together my report for rounds.
There are moments when Christ’s wounded body reveals itself as a persistent reality, moments when the veil that divides us from the divine is lifted and we see that there is no unsacred thing. We reach out to the broken person across from us and realize it is the grieving hand of Christ that meets us and then realize that we are the broken one. In those moments we accept our weakness but are not overcome and we become brave enough to ask for help. We know that in this world we will see the brutal wrath of hell but we will see heaven too and so we keep looking for it.
This year in the Liturgy of Life reading group we are meditating on ideas of suffering and faith. Please join us as we begin our next book, The Problem of Pain in another week. For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for occasional updates and emails (usually about one per week), like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group.
*Names and other details have been changed to protect this patient’s privacy.
Thanks for reading,