I have worked as a hospital chaplain in the United States, but on a medical-mission trip to Bolivia three years ago, I was serving as translator, patient transporter, and recovery-room assistant. I was with a team that repairs the cleft palates of poor children, and that’s where I met Maria, an infant who had just come out of surgery.

It proved to be a brief encounter. Almost as soon as Maria arrived in the recovery area, she started bleeding profusely. There was nothing our team of Bolivian and North American nurses could do to stop it. The surgeons, who had never lost a patient, ordered Maria back to the operating room. I accompanied her.

Part of my chaplaincy training had taken place in a neonatal intensive care unit, so I quickly understood that Maria was not going to survive. I suggested to Luz, the Bolivian charge nurse, that Maria’s parents be informed and asked whether they wanted their daughter to be baptized. Word came back immediately: Do anything you can to save her, and please baptize her. “How are we going to baptize the child?” Luz asked irritably. “There is no priest; how are we going to get one quickly?”

“It’s OK,” I said, “I’ll baptize her.” Luz’s eyes widened above her surgical mask, and then narrowed skeptically. How could I, a woman, baptize a child-and by whose authority? With no time for theological debate, I took a vial of holy water and made the sign of the cross on Maria’s forehead. Almost immediately, she became lifeless, and no amount of intervention could bring her back.

Maria’s parents were heartbroken but calm. “She is with God now, and that is a better place than this difficult life,” her mother said, the tears streaming down her face. The medical team was devastated. The two American doctors-gentle, lovely men-grieved with the family and assisted with Maria’s burial. Because the death occurred on the first day of many planned surgeries, the joint team’s confidence was shaken: Would Maria’s death undermine our efforts to bring care to the other families?

The following day, some parents canceled surgery for their children and returned to their villages. But most stayed. I would pray with them prior to the surgery, and in most cases, accompany the child to the operating room. There were no further emergencies, and over the next two weeks, we performed forty-five successful cleft-palate repairs.

Luz continued to treat me frostily, as if I had done something offensive in baptizing the dying infant, but the other nurses were warm and affectionate. One, Angelina, worked the twelve-hour shifts without rest. Whenever I would have to sit down to breathe through an oxygen mask (we were working at nearly fifteen thousand feet), she would bring me coca tea to combat my altitude sickness.

One Sunday, the medical team was treated to a trip to a resort on Lake Titicaca, and to a visit to the shrine of the Virgin of Copacabana. The latter involved climbing to the top of a steep hill, which Angelina insisted I do to “receive a special blessing.” Already exhausted, I could not make the final thousand feet. “No, no, you must finish!” Angelina insisted, and she and three other nurses pushed and pulled me up the mountain. Somehow, we made it, and the view alone was breathtaking.

The day before our team was to leave Bolivia, Luz approached me in the hospital cafeteria. “I have been talking with my nurses about what it is you do,” she said, and I thought: “Here it comes...” Instead, she said with great sincerity, “We like what you do. You pray, you give comfort-these are good things for the patients and their families. We want you to teach us to do what you do so that we can provide for our patients and families after you leave.” Then she smiled, and a wave of shame and relief passed over me.

The following day, I briefed Luz, Angelina, and seven other nurses on what a hospital chaplain does. I taught them to pray with patients, to listen to them, and how to comfort the families. I gave each a little prayer booklet that I had hurriedly drawn up and duplicated. I’m not sure they understood my Spanish, but they seemed to understand my intent, and they loved the prayer booklets. We finished with a blessing-of-hands ceremony, and I gave each a vial of holy water. Angelina embraced me and said, “It is the work of God that we fill each other’s empty places.”

I left Bolivia proud of the work we had done, but even prouder of the nine capable women who would continue the legacy of spiritual care. And when I returned to the States, I was humbled by the care they had given me, so freely, so generously.

Karen Rushen

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Published in the 2006-06-02 issue: View Contents
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