Flori won the hearts of all who knew her. In her memory, we search for answers to preventable deaths from cervical cancer.
It's Friday night. Mom and I said good-bye to Flori at the hospital this evening. We both left with tears in our eyes. Hard to believe that it was just yesterday morning at 6AM that Randy said to me as I was brushing my teeth, "Anne, Flori is making funny noises." I came running down the stairs to find her having a major motor seizure. We called 911and an ambulance came within minutes....another testimony to the successful system we have here in the U.S.
The paramedics were kind, competent and very concerned. They even expressed interest in joining us on a mission trip in the future. It was all very surreal. We arrived at the emergency room where she quickly had another major seizure. It was hard for me to watch as I have grown to consider her part of my family. But the doctors stepped up and had everything under control within minutes. We then had her admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and the nurses there treated her with the kindest regard. I continue to be amazed at the number of people involved in her care and I pray,ultimately her healing.
I asked Dr. Debbie Guntsch, a family practice doctor,if she would manage her care in the hosptial. Debbie, without hesitation, said absolutely yes. You could sense her deep care for the most vulnerable and needy. Within minutes, I realized that Dr. Guntsch had a great knowledge of the diseases afflicting developing countries and so, she knew all the right tests to order. Another very kind neurologist, Dr. Saraya, also became involved and has been managing Flori's seizures successfully.
So tonight , after receiving all the results of the tests, we really are not sure why this happened. My theory is that it was the culmination of just too many things - her chemo and radiation, too much vomiting and diarrhea, inability to sleep, too much stress, God's plan?? Why???
I often feel frustration and even anger in Guatemala that there is so little medical care and the people suffer so profoundly. Yet, I look at this situation. Despite the best doctors and nurses, the best technology, the greatest research, unlimited generosity and dollars, Flori still suffers and we are still not sure why a girl of 27 would get cervical cancer and why she is having seizures. Melinda and I were down with her on Wednesday night when she was receiving her MRI. She had to lay in that loud tunnel for 90 minutes. All I asked her was not to move and she did so without complaint - no questions, no challenges - just did as asked. While we didn't have the radiologist there, the young man who was doing the test was very knowledgable and so kind. We watched as the films came up on the screen. There was that lump in my throat that you feel when you're hanging on for an answer that you know will change the course of your life. I almost felt as if I was watching a slot machine! Are the results just random? Why do some people who have cancer treatments live and some die? Is it a role of the dice? Was she going to have metastatic disease in her brain? Was there going to be signs of parasitic disease from living in a developing country? Was the tumor in her pelvis bigger?
I was amazed at the knowledge of anatomy that the technician had. As doctors, we often don't give enough credit to all the other health care workers! As the pictures rolled in, we realized that for at least this night, we could still have hope. Her brain was clear, the tumor in the pelvis is still there, though smaller. No obvious lymph node involvement. But what will the ultimate outcome be? Will she struggle along here during the next few weeks and then ultimately be well and return to raise her beautiful children? Will we all have a day in Antigua where we'll share a glorious meal with her family and give thanks to God for healing?
Or will all her suffering be for nought? Perhaps the answer to that question is the crux of our faith. Sometimes we believe that if the outcome of our efforts is not what we want - possibly death - then "we" have failed and God didn't hear Our prayers. It's easy to think that if Flori does not survive, then none of this was "worth it." We could argue that she should be home with her family now. Those of us involved in her care could be doing other things for our own families. But as I live through this, I would argue deeply that yes, it is all "worth it". Through this time, I continue to marvel at the presence of God in every moment. I see His peace in Flori's eyes and she is teaching me what real peace and faith in God is all about. I see God's presence in the hearts of each person who cares for her. One of the nurses who has been caring for her has shown such love for his work. He has all the skills to manage her high tech machines and yet, he humbly helps her through her episodes of diarrhea and vomiting.
I've come to know and love Pastor Lupina Stewart through all this. She is a missionary from Mexico who is working here in Toledo to unite Hispanic and "mainstream" churches; helping each to realize that they will come closer to God in working together. She is such an image of God's love. Somehow, she always knows exactly the right words to help Flori and all of us. Like Flori's, her faith is so beautiful and pure. In days when I begin to feel defeated, I receive a message from her that feels like it is God whispering in my ear.
I've also come to know the Pastor and his wife from the local Latino Church, Torres Fuerte. They came and prayed with Flori in the hospital and have been by her side all along. Their words always remind me that we can find the beauty and goodness of God everywhere - even in suffering - if we only seek Him in every situation.
Flori never stops amazing me with her fortitude, her patience and her humility. She has all the qualities I wishI could have! Whatever the outcome, I know that she has changed my life forever. Thank you all for your support and loving prayers.
You wonder how much more suffering can she endure? As if leaving your family at a time when you are most vulnerable is not enough, she has to deal with the constant diarrhea, vomiting, headace and cramping. We've tried every medication; sometimes they help but at other times, it seems as if she is under attack. I tell her that it is the cancer that is under attack and it is slowly being destroyed which is why she feels the way she does. Fortunately, we been able to keep IV fluids going over the last few days. Once again the staff at Flower hospital has been wonderful. They spent 2 hours with me today coming up with some new ideas to improve things for her.
And then Pastors Lupina and Elvira will be visiting with her. They mean so much to Flori as they have been able to let her know that God is truly caring for her. They even anointed her last week. Karen, one of our strong supporters and encouragers sent me a beautiful email tonight reminding me of this passage in the bible:
“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:14-16 I know that Flori will love to hear it.
Tomorrow she'll be receiving 3 units of blood since she has lost so much. 2 more weeks of radiation and chemo and then 2 more weeks of a different kind of radiation. Still a long road ahead. We try to just focus on one day at a time and dream about a day when we'll laugh and chat about some of the funny things that have happened here. Even today at the hospital, I had to smile. Flori takes extra precautions when using the public bathrooms to put the paper covering over the toilet Knowing the latrine conditions in Guatemala, this truly made me laugh! I do surely know in my heart that this adventure will continue to bring more souls to God and will show many of us here how we need to sometimes change the focus of our lives.
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Here's mom!! It's hard to describe the constant love that she shows Flori. She's being so challenged having to understand someone who doesn't speak English, to care for someone with advanced cancer and to juggle all the hospital and doctor visits. But she's doing it with her usual humility and love for those in the greatest need. The 2 pictures above are from before Flori started all the treatments. Even though, she's so sick, Flori still makes mom laugh like she did in this picture.
"Angels of Mercy!" This morning I was reminded how when anything good happens, it is always because of the efforts of so many. Flori has had a very rough couple of days. She has a history of an ulcer in the past and because of the radiation, medications, vomiting and difficulty eating, the pain in her stomach has become so much worse. As always, all I had to do was make a simple phone call and there were the angels we needed. Melinda and Chris Rakesmith came over, put in an IV and gave Flori the needed medications and IV fluids. She started feeling better right away. Isn't it a shame that the rest of us would have to go to the hospital if we needed these things. As always, God has provided the people we need.
Thank you so much Melinda and Chris!
Flori and I went to a Hispanic church tonight called Torres Fuertes. I loved being there. The message was so pure. The songs were beautiful and it was all about having reliance on a God that is so much bigger than us and is so willing to guide us through the toughest times if only we will let him. My Spanish gets a bit better each day but for some reason I was able to understand everything at the service. The sermon was based on Psalm 27
"The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid?......
One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord...
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;.....
Hear my voice when I call, O Lord;
be merciful to me and answer me....
Teach me your way, O Lord, lead me in a straight path....
Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart and wait....
I write this because the message was so powerful for me. Flori is so clearly being attacked at every angle.
Her husband, Herbert, was having abdominal pain yesterday and went to the same hospital that she went to when she was misdiagnosed. He ended up having an appendectomy last night; the same operation she had for her cervical cancer!
She cried all night knowing that her children were probably even more fearful. Not only was their mom gone, but now their dad was also sick. They are now staying with distant family.
But don't we all have our own prayers? Our own demons that we wish we could be rid of? So this message in Psalms was so powerful for me and the pastor did such a wonderful way of communicating the message. Just trust, trust that if you follow the message, God will protect you and get you through even the most difficult of situations.
When we came home, Flori once again vomited up her dinner. She never complains - just quietly suffers. She's lost quite a bit of weight. She cries at times and then other times, she and I talk about why God put her here. We both believe that it is for a much grander purpose than just curing cancer.
We got out a calender for her so she could cross of the days until she sees her children again and hopefully, stops vomiting and stops being in pain.
She was so happy to go back to my mom's tonight. It's as if my mom is her mom. They continue to amaze me as they tell stories about what the other has "said"! How they do know that without knowing a word of each other's language!!
23 days already! Flori continues to suffer incredibly. The nurses assure me that this can happen when people as young as she is get this kind of treatment but I pray it will not continue much longer. She tries so hard to laugh and hug but within minutes, she vomits or runs to the bathroom. She continues to be incredibly week and of course weepy so often as she misses her family.
Today she asked my mom if she could ever come to Guatemala to visit her family. She explained how privileged they would be to know her as she has done so much for Flori. Mom laughed and said it would probably be too hot! Then I had a wonderful idea! I suggested that we have a GREAT celebration in Antigua, Guatemala after her treatments are done. Antigua is one of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala and it is historical and rich in culture. There are the most beautiful hotels and restaurants. I told her we could all go and have a little vacation and bring her family as well as Ismael and his family. Suddenly, she became quiet and the tears just streamed down her face and she sobbed. She said that this would be very special for her but the real joy is that her mother would come. Her parents are extremely poor and never leave their village. She said this has been her dream - to bring her mom to such a place as this.
Mom and I just beamed at the happiness of it all! How often do you tell anyone hear that you'll bring them on vacation and they cry with joy???????
Now into the second week of chemo and radiation. The first 7 days were hard to watch. Despite attempts at every medication we could think of, Flori vomited continuously. The nurses at Flower Hospital would give her extra IV fluids before her treatments and we'd keep the IV going over the weekend at our house. She could barely stand and would ask me if we could do another "test" to see if the cancer was gone so that she could stop these treatments. As I watched all this, I'd pray to God to bring her complete healing so that her suffering was not in vain. Finally, with input from all her wonderful nurses and docotrs, we came up with a new medication that has now worked! As it is extremely expensive, Dr. Phibb's physician assistant, Cheryl, was kind enough to find this for us for at least the next two weeks and I have faith that we'll be able to keep her on it .
While she struggles with great loneliness for her family and fear of the unknown, there is now an occasional smile. She has a tremendous sense of humor which is nice to see again! Best of all, she looks forward to eating and since my mom loves to feed people, this is a win-win for all!! I can't say enough about my mom's great compassion and selflessness in caring for Flori. Without any understanding of Spanish, she seems to always know what Flori needs and she cares for her as if she was her own daughter. Although countless people have helped in so many ways, it is comforting to have at least one consistent person there for her each day.
Flori is just one little person in a world of great suffering. How she came to actually be here with at least a chance of survival is a miracle. I believe that God is using her to open our eyes to the realities of great injustice. Her story is the same one heard in the cries of the poor every day. We live in a time of the greatest wealth this world has ever known, yet the gap between those of us who "get it all" and those who get nothing widens every day. While her individual situation is unique, it reflects so many issues surrounding the 2 great great co-morbidities; poverty and disease. Why does a 27 year old woman even get cervical cancer at this advanced stage? We know that her lack of adequate nutrition, her impoverished lifestyle and a lack of a functioning health system in her country are the root causes. Flori told me that she received a "normal pap smear" 2 years ago. As a gynecologist, I know that's not even possible. But in her country, there is one pathologist for more than a million people. So who's to blame? Surely not the person who "performed" the pap. The blame lies in a world that allows this situation to exist. Yes, the issues are endlessly complex but if each one of us would do SOMETHING each day to address this great wrongdoing, I believe it could be different. Sr. Pam, one of our board members, often reflects that God puts the person that He wants you to care for in your path. You don't have to work hard to "find" out how you can help. If you open your eyes, there is poverty of all kinds all around us. In "Mountains Beyond Mountains", Dr. Paul Farmer tries to answer the question of why God "permits" great suffering. God gives but doesn't share. He gives our world everything we all need to flourish but he charges all of us to "divvy up the loot". Dr. Farmer reminds us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was sick and you looked afer me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Unfortunately, our world ruins this message anby debating about which church, which religion, which "truth" is right. For me, it seems pretty simple. Flori has been here for 18 days. In that time, I really am experiencing heaven on earth. I watch people of all different ages, talents, income levels and religions come together for a cause of just helping one person; of just doing exactly what God asks of us in Matthew. There is no money to be made on this effort and Flori is not in any of our "families". She's just a poor person in the family of God who is in great need right now. Every day, I am witnessing so much joy, happiness and peace in everyone involved in her life at this moment. While the ultimate outcome of her life will be decided by a much Higher Power that I cannot even begin to understand, I believe that the goodness of all who are involved will have far reaching effects to bring healing to many more than just Flori.