Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006


by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.

Printable version of this story

SAN DIEGO -- I haven't seen them in years but I came across a picture of the Sisters Servants of Mary today on the Internet. They are an order of Catholic nuns, mostly from Latin countries. Beautiful women with dark skin and eyes dressed in white habits. A semi-contemplative order, their vocation besides prayer is to care for the sick and elderly.

I met them while working in a convalescent hospital in Newbury Park, California. Their convent was attached to the nursing home by two long hallways, one that went past the kitchen and laundry on the back end and past the chapel and office on the front. Up and down these two halls, countless times every day, moved these quiet, graceful women in rustling white robes and of massive faith.

I knew Sisters Julia and Luisa first. Before I became a nurse, I worked in the kitchen with them. Sister Luisa was a big as a gnome, had a backbrace and a sense of humor that eased the continual pain of her aging, arthritic body. She also made killer bread pudding. Younger and arthritis-free, Sister Julia was a tomboy.

She loved to laugh and play practical jokes, but she was also pushy and loud, which annoyed all the other sisters and a few of the staff. She decidedly did not have the saintly aura many of the nursing sisters had so; I suppose that's how she ended up in the kitchen. When she got too obnoxious, Sister Luisa wouldn't speak to her for days. Sor (Spanish for sister) Julia hardly seemed to notice.

After I became a nurse, I became close friends with Sister Esther Betancourt from Columbia. Self-effacing and diminutive, she was different from the other sisters: same dark eyes but with very light skin and a rounded face with high cheekbones which gave her almost a china doll appearance. She walked like a china doll too, quick small steps as she flew around the halls in and out of rooms, tending her beloved patients.

She had a both a seriousness and a childlikeness which I loved. Her patients loved her as well. Her smallest smile could lighten your load and make you feel touched by an angel. I saw that small miracle happen over and over again, as she'd take someone's face in her hands and kiss their wrinkly cheek or soothe a weary soul with her Spanish endearments.

I haven't been to see them in years. Sister Esther is now in Kansas City, in charge of the novitiate. Probably all the sisters at the convent and home are ones I wouldn't know, but I found myself missing a few of them in particular - and all of them in general - the other day.

I went into a nursing home attached to a retirement community where I go and visit a couple twice weekly. They are living independently but need more and more help. We talk frequently about a change of residence when it becomes necessary, and where they would go.

The benefit of living in one of these elder communities where there are different "levels of care" is that when you do have to move to higher level of care, you stay within the same community. This is supposed to foster continuity of care, and thus security. But the reality is that there are so many people living in these places that if there is a need for you to be admitted to the skilled nursing center, you will rarely know anyone there - staff or resident.

I walked in to the nursing home part through a side door the other day to have a look at the place hoping for the best so that I could go back and tell me friends how nice their home was, and assuage some of their fears about having to go there.

What I found made me sad.

The first thing that greeted me was about ten people in wheel chairs all jammed up together in the entrance. Most of them were either resigned to just sitting there or they were slumped to one side asleep, or wishing they were.

I untangled a few of them so they could wheel themselves freely again and walked past them towards the nurse's station. There were wheelchairs everywhere lining the halls. Small people in every one. Heads down. One man was starring at the floor and had one big drop of mucous just hanging on the end of his nose. Not the kind you get from having a cold but the kind that means you've been in one position for a very long time.

The nurses were at the station busily engaged in paperwork as usual. All around are broken hearts and bodies and all there is time to do is "chart." It's a lousy, rotten system.

I've found myself thinking this week about the Sisters Servants of Mary. How they would have been fluttering around those poor souls in that home, stroking hair, holding hands and wiping noses.

The Sisters of Mercy may not be departed or gone, as Leonard Cohen sang, but there are simply too few of them to go around. It's just you and me, and we have to find a better way to do this.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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