A cancer dilemma
A rather unusual invitation came to me two days before 2019 ended: to “give a talk” to mothers and caregivers of cancer-stricken children at the National Children’s Hospital in Quezon City. “They need spiritual nourishment, some encouragement, too, because they get weary from caring and tend to lose hope,” I was told by Brother Leo, an indefatigable and devoted nurse to these children.
Having had no formal training in either counselling or spiritual direction, I told Brother that I wouldn’t know how to correctly provide the needed “nourishment and encouragement”. Nevertheless, compassion moved me to accept the invitation, armed only with common sense and experience—I had for almost 20 years been life-coaching, writing a popular advice column for a woman’s magazine. I also was once an all-around caregiver-driver-spiritual-director-and-money-bag for my daughter-in-law, from the time her lung cancer was discovered at Stage 4 in January 2015 up to her cremation and burial 27 months later.
Fulfilling a promise, I visited the NCH first to get the feel of being around the “cancer kids” and their caregivers. I was to attend Mass with caregivers and patients alike. I admired them for making an effort to hear Mass—not in a proper chapel for the hospital has none—but in one corner of a busy corridor, rolling out wheelchairs and carrying their little children with dextrose bottles in tow. People were moving in and out of the elevator close by, walking through the rows of chairs, but they were not bothered. Neither was the priest who from the makeshift altar delivered a heartfelt homily despite the people milling about.
After Mass we visited the cancer wards. The patients were mostly young children—suffering from various cancers including leukemia and colon cancer. I then understood why Brother Leo had called his work the “Ministry of Crying.” The sight of suffering small children is enough to bring tears of pity to my eyes for these innocent beings.
I observe that whenever I go to institutions “to help the needy,” I end up feeling it is they who are actually helping me. Somehow their situation spurs me to probe my own depths, as what happened during that NCH visit. All of the cancer-stricken children were attached to some tube or another—for dextrose supply, blood transfusion, tube-feeding, oxygen; some had multiple needles stuck in their veins, while others showed limbs turning blue from prolonged contact with intravenous needles. I thought: I could endure torturous hospital contraptions (and medical procedures that threaten to rob me of my dignity), and maybe to some extent I deserve to be tortured and humiliated thus, but what did these little angels do to deserve such suffering? How would a baby not quite weaned from the breast have kidney cancer? And I would cry with remorse inside, counting the many times I have taken my health for granted.
Brother Leo’s “Ministry of Crying” is not an occasional thing like mine, but is part and parcel of his work in the hospital. He admitted that he sometimes “gets attached” to some of these children, so that he becomes inconsolable when they finally die. In spite of the “quick turnover” of patients in the wards, his well of tears never seems to run dry. Once a little boy chose to cling to him as marrow was to be extracted from his tail bone, and when the boy wailed in pain, Brother Leo said, “I couldn’t help but cry, too. Masakit talaga yon, umaatungal na parang baka yung bata sa sakit. It’s as if I myself was the one going through the procedure. I couldn’t stand it, I wanted to break loose from the boy but could not because I was sure he would feel the pain more if I did. At that moment, all I could do was cry with him.” Not long after, the boy died just the same. Another occasion for Brother Leo to cry some more.
As part of my “orientation” visit in preparation for my “talk” with the caregivers, I lingered a while in the cancer ward and made small talk with them. Then I witnessed two impromptu baptisms: one for a teenaged girl on the throes of death (from lung cancer), and another for a four-year old boy with leukemia. It was rather sad that the baptism of the girl, almost 18, was “indefinitely postponed” by the caregiver who was reportedly “born again,” and the mother who (being uncatechized) cared little about the sacrament. On the other hand, the mother of the four-year old covered her son always with a handkerchief rubbed on to the Black Nazarene image—she had wanted her boy baptized then—praying her son would be healed.
Some days later, I learned that both of them had died the day after their baptism. Then I recalled that while doing the rounds that day in the cancer wards, I noticed that all of the child patients were playing with cell phones. Science has proven that cell phones are dangerous to one’s health, emitting radiations wreaking havoc on our immune system and destroying our bodies. If the caregivers are not aware of that, surely the doctors and the nurses are, then why are they not educating the caregivers so that the harmful practice may be stopped? Came the answer: “Diyan ho sila natatahimik eh; pag hindi mo ibinigay, umiiyak.” The unspoken answer was “Mamamatay na din lang naman sila eh, di paligayahan mo na’t ibigay mo na yung gusto.” And that’s the truth.