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Friday, January 30, 2009

“The disciples brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (Mark 1: 32-33)

“SOUL-SURFING” – February 8, 2009
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1:29-39
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

“How many of you are taking Spanish in school?” I shouted across the hospital kitchen’s food preparation area. Eight high-schoolers raised their hands. “Well, come with me,” I ordered. “You’re needed in the ER.” With a nod from their supervisor, with whom I’d already cleared the request, the curious teens doffed their gloves, aprons and paper hats and trailed me into the unknown.

Until my raid on the kitchen, it had been an otherwise quiet spring Saturday morning at St. Joseph Medical Center, South Bend, Indiana. But the stillness was broken when I received an urgent page to the ER. Even before I arrived, I could hear the cacophony of loud screams surging down the corridor. Must be something awful, I thought to myself. Probably a death or a violent accident. I braced myself. Shooting through the ER doors, the echoes of screaming bounced off every wall, yet I could see no sign of a medical emergency: no tight huddle of medical personnel surrounding a bedded figure; no red crash cart spilling resuscitation equipment and live-saving drugs. But the screams! The epicenter seemed to be a corner bed enclosed by curtains.

As I stood just for a moment staring toward the corner commotion, Jan, the charge nurse, approached. “You’re Spanish aren’t you?” she quizzed me. My response wasn’t helpful. “Well, Jan, my name is Spanish, but I can’t speak the language.” Her jaw dropped in disappointment. “Well,” she continued, “we have this elderly man over there in the corner bed who only speaks Spanish, and we can’t figure out what’s going on with him. His family’s with him, but no one speaks English. The poor guy’s in obvious pain, but we can’t do much until we can get a history. Any suggestions?” That’s when I thought of the high school kids in the kitchen.

Arriving back in the ER with the 8 teenagers whom I’d prepped along the way, explaining that a Spanish-speaking family needed their help, I offered my find to the doctor assigned to the moaning old man behind the curtain. As I gently guided the screaming family members to the ER waiting room (where they continued to emit less raucous sounds of agony, my Roman collar offering minimal consolation), the 8 teens and the doctor went to the bedside to try to discover the patient’s problem.

Fifteen minutes later, I rejoined the pack of students just as they were congratulating each other with hugs and pats on the back. They’d done it! Pooling their knowledge of Spanish and gently questioning the ailing man, a diagnosis had been reached: constipation! No wonder the poor guy was moaning. The two most fluent students then went with the doctor to the family to communicate their discovery, soothe the family’s fears, and offer a simple remedy for their loved one’s pain. Smiles all around once the language barrier was breached!

For weeks thereafter, whenever I’d run into those kitchen employees, they’d ask if I’d heard anything about how the poor man was doing. While I hadn’t, I assured them that their assistance in the ER that morning was as important to his healing as anything any doctor could have done. As their wide smiles spoke clearly the pride they felt at having a part in an old man’s return to health, I reminded them of a truth: healing often comes in very unusual packages. Like 8 giggly teenagers on a Saturday morning.

The gospel passage we hear today sets the stage for the many healings attributed to Jesus. “The disciples brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (Mark 1: 32-33) Indeed, the work of those first followers of Jesus continues as we 21st century disciples bring to him those in need of his healing touch. Listen to another true story of healing packaged in surprising manner.

“Janet Lutz worked for 30 years as a hospital chaplain. Before she retired, she [spoke about] ministering to the staff of Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

“‘One of the things we do,’ Lutz said, ‘is go around and bless the hands of all the people who work in the hospital.’ And that meant she often had to track down staff members and support workers all over the building: in basements, bathrooms and break rooms, wherever they happened to be. ‘When I go around finding people,’ Lutz said, ‘they're often startled, and then really touched by it. As am I.’

“It was while making the rounds down in the basement that Lutz met a technician who put special care into her work. The woman's job was to package all the tools and equipment needed for various surgeries. The required instruments were listed on a checklist, with the patient's name at the top. The woman told Lutz that when she packed the instruments, she would also look at the patients' names and she would pray for them. The woman said this had been her routine for 40 years.

“‘I thought, “No one knows that she's doing this,” Lutz said. “Here she is, a person who has been working at that hospital for longer than most of us, who is doing this incredibly important job that has to be done precisely and carefully. As she's doing this, she's praying for the patients she will never meet and the patients that she will never see; she'll never know the outcome [of their surgery].” And then she found out that most of the hospital employees did the same thing. To Lutz, the episode was proof of how much good, hard work goes on behind the scenes in a hospital.

“Even the most essential work can go unseen by patients and their families, who ‘just assume these people are all doing their work, and they don't realize how rich their lives are, and how rich their stories are,’ Lutz said.” (“In A Hospital, There's No Monopoly on Prayer,” NPR, December 19, 2008)

“The disciples brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (Mark 1: 32-33) The work continues, God’s healing touch manifest in surprising manner: 8 giggly teenagers deciphering an old man’s illness; a surgical supply technician packaging prayers among the sterile instruments; each of us giving generous heart to neighbor’s distress. Yes, the work continues.

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