A few weeks ago, while I was in Ecuador, a woman came to Proyecto Santo Niño in Anapra. She arrived just as Cristina Coronado, a volunteer, was leaving. Marta told Cristina that she was looking for help for her daughter-in-law, Cynthia, who had cancer. Cristina knows what it is to have to fend for yourself with a diagnosis of cancer in Juarez. In fact, in this city of over a million people, cancer is basically not treated. For the past year she traveled four hours to the state capitol, Chihuahua, to access diagnostic tests, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer. An activist and community organizer, she has been drawn into the situations of other women seeking treatment in Chihuahua. She is working to develop a support group for women with cancer and to mobilize people of faith to provide adequate housing for patients who must travel long distances from home to receive care. So Cristina was immediately sensitive to Marta’s story about Cynthia who at age 21 was diagnosed with cancer sometime around the birth of her second child three months ago. She had a hysterectomy but was discharged from the hospital without any recommendation for further treatment. As she became sicker and sicker, her family took her back to the clinic where she had been diagnosed and they were told that there was nothing to be done.
Marta came to Anapra hunting for “La Clinica Guadalupana” because a little family she met in downtown Juarez told her that she could get help there. This is where the story becomes mysterious and fascinating. Our center in Anapra has not been called “La Clinica Guadalupana” for many years. When we became aware of the lack of services for children with special needs, through the experience of one of our prenatal patients who had a baby with Downs Syndrome, we decided to dedicate ourselves to that project and we named it “Proyecto Santo Niño” after the Holy Child Jesus.
Marta told Cristina that somewhere downtown, desperate to find care for her daughter-in-law, she encountered a man and a woman with a small handicapped child. She told Cristina that she felt drawn to the child. As she stared at him, the parents noticed her and she felt very embarrassed. She went over to apologize, explaining that she, too, had a child with a special need: her daughter-in-law Cynthia. She told them the whole story and that was when they said that they always went to “La Clinica Guadalupana in Anapra”. They felt sure that she would find help for Cynthia there, too. And she did.
When Cristina heard this story she sprang into action. She arranged to visit Cynthia the next day and was struck to the core at the vision of misery before her. “What a tragedy!” she told me a few days later. “The situation of health care in this country, especially for the poor, is a disgrace!” Familiar with the hospitals and the “system”, she made some calls and pulled some strings until appointments were scheduled for Cynthia. Although it was clear that her condition was terminal, Cynthia was hospitalized in the “oncology ward” of the general hospital.
I visited Cynthia in the hospital on Friday with Cristina. The ward was immaculately clean, quiet, cool…and almost empty. Only one of the dozen beds was occupied besides Cynthia’s. Cristina spoke with the nurse at the desk while I sat with Cynthia. There was confusion over the medications the doctor had prescribed. Cristina had been all over the city trying to purchase them because the hospital could not provide them. The doctor told the family that he wasn’t sure that Cynthia could even tolerate the treatment because of her extremely weakened state. When we visited, all she wanted to do was to go home to be with her children for whatever time she had left. And so she did. On Saturday she went home to her mother-in-law’s house. On Sunday Cristina and her husband took Fr. Bill Morton to anoint her and on Tuesday morning Cynthia died.
Cristina and I have had several conversations about what this experience means for us. We knew that what could be done for Cynthia was palliative at best. “I don’t think that this is just about Cynthia,” Cristina told me as we left the hospital last Friday. I agreed. “But there are many “Cynthias” in this city who are not receiving the services they need because the resources are not directed towards Juarez.” We talked about the enormity of the problem. What can we do? What are we called to do, because now we know?
Every time we feel ourselves drowning in our own inadequacy, one of us returns to the story of Marta’s encounter with the little family in downtown Juarez. Who could they have been? The fact is that we do not have any family at Proyecto Santo Niño that fits their description. Marta insists that they told her they always go to “La Clinica Guadalupana” and always find help there. Could they have been the Holy Family? And by the reference to Our Lady of Guadalupe, are we not to be reminded of one who enlisted the most unlikely of helpers for her project? Juan Diego felt completely unqualified for the task entrusted to him by Our Lady. But she was insistent:
“Listen and hear well in your heart, my most abandoned son: that which scares you and troubles you is nothing; do not let your countenance and your heart be troubled; do not fear that sickness or any other sickness or anxiety. Am I not here, your mother? Are you not under my shadow and my protection? Am I not your source of life? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle where I cross my arms? Who else do you need? Let nothing trouble you or cause you sorrow. “ *
And so for now, we await further instructions.
*translation by Fr. Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, p.15-16