Her children brought her in to see me. She had complained of pain and morning stiffness for months, but she was leery of doctors and felt more comfortable using the home remedies that her mother had taught her. Once it was clear that she could not walk without pain and that she could not hold a frying pan with one hand she agreed to the consultation.
She was less than five feet tall. I assume that she was malnourished as a child and was never able to catch up on her growth. She was dressed in clothes that had seen better days, or better years. She looked down at the floor whenever she addressed me: never made eye contact, just the way poor children were taught to address their elders when she was growing up. She was smart; articulate; completely at ease with the mistaken idea that she was not as good, or deserving, or capable as the people that she dealt with on a daily basis.
There were five children. Together they owned two local restaurants that did very well. There were plans for expansion and franchising. Five bright and enterprising young Americans. The four sons almost lifted her out of the car and helped her to negotiate the parking lot. The daughter came armed with a piece of paper full of notes. She made sure that I received an accurate picture of how disabled my patient was: she knew that mom would not complain enough.
The diagnosis was clear. She had a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. This took thirty seconds. It took 45 minutes to convince her to take the immunosuppressive that she needed. I had to resort to a strong arm.
Do you want to be crippled the rest of your life?
Silence. Still looking at the floor.
You won’t be able to walk without help. Or dress yourself. Or cook for your children.
That did it. She nodded.
She had no insurance. The children paid in cash for the consultation. I told them that I would not bill them for subsequent visits. In those days the medicine was affordable, and arrangements could be made to modify the cost of blood tests and X-Rays. She received the care that she needed.
In two months she was better. By month three she only needed one child to escort her to her visits. She was back to normal. She gained a few much needed pounds. She was able to smile. I could see her grin; she was no longer looking at the floor. As if she now knew that I was on her side.
A year went by. One day I received a call from her daughter. Mom was again unable to walk. I asked her to come in right away. She was in bad shape. Her sons had rented a wheelchair. They had to lift her onto the exam table. And to the bathroom.
It was clear that she had a herniated disc. Years of working the fields and picking up anything that threatened to soil her immaculate house had taken their toll.
I called the president of the hospital. He agreed to deeply discount the rate for a magnetic resonance test. Once my impression was confirmed I called my friend the back surgeon. He also provided a deep discount. In less than a week she was walking free of pain.
At her next visit all five children showed up. This was unusual; when she was functional they took turns bringing her in.
What can I do for you?
“We want to give you a party.”
There’s no need. It’s OK.
“You have saved our mother. Twice. You’ve helped us with the cost. We have to give you a party.”
Please. I’m doing my job. I love taking care of your mom. Besides, if I took something in return then I’ll feel that I’m not doing the right thing. It’s OK.
The oldest son spoke up.
“We want to do this for you. To thank you. Please allow us that opportunity.”
I belatedly understood that this party was not going to be only for me. Mom’s recovery had to be celebrated. I gave in.
Of course. Just let me know the day and the time.
Two months later on a Saturday night I invited twenty friends to my party. My patient and her children were an hour late: they had never felt welcome in my side of town; they did not know the terrain; in those days there was no GPS.
They brought four cars. All five children with their spouses. A few cousins who were treated as if they were part of the immediate family. And the children. All of my patient’s grandchildren came, dressed in their First Communion whites; they paraded single file from the cars and walked up to the front door to meet grandma’s doctor, as if I were some form of holy presence. They bowed their heads and thanked me as they walked into the house.
There was a guitar player for me and my friends to sing. There was a whole goat that had been cooked underground, just like they did in the old country. And chicken for those who did not like goat. And vegetables and salad for the vegans. There was soda, and plenty of alcohol, and three typical desserts.
My friends were impressed. They ate and they danced and they sang; they ate some more. My patient’s sons remained in the kitchen, cooking; cleaning; bringing dishes out. They refused to join us.
“It’s your party, doctor.”
The children scattered throughout the kitchen floor. As the night advanced they found nooks and corners to fall asleep on. A dozen little angels dressed in white brightened up our path. They had been perfectly quiet all night. It took a lot of convincing, but my patient finally agreed to join the party to sing with us.
Nobody wanted to leave. I told my patient’s children it was OK if they left; I could clean up and return their utensils at a later date. They refused.
“Enjoy your party, doctor. Don’t worry about us. We’re OK.”
At 3 AM I had to lay down the law.
This is the last song. Everyone out after that. These poor kids need to be in bed.
My friends reluctantly departed. As soon as the last guest walked out the door my patient’s children came out of the kitchen. They had brought cleaning utensils and supplies with them. They descended upon the living and dining rooms with relentless efficiency. Picking up trash and uneaten food; scrubbing; dusting; vacuuming. All of the leftover food was packaged and handed to me.
That’s a lot of food. Why don’t you take some home with you?
“It’s your food; your party, doctor. Enjoy it.”
They left the place sparkling; without a doubt cleaner than it was when they arrived. They woke up the kids. They filed out, one by one, and once again thanked me for taking care of grandma. At the door my patient thanked me, for the hundredth time, and told me how I had saved her life.
You’re embarrassing me. It’s OK.
She gave me a hug and hurried off to catch up with her children.
She was born in Mexico. She led a life of poverty and suffered through all forms of abuse until she somehow made it to this country. I have no idea how that happened. I suspect that one of her children found a legal way of entry and that he managed to bring the rest of the family in. They all worked extremely long hours at minimum wage to support themselves. They saved; they helped each other out; they had enough to buy one restaurant, then the other. They spoke English. The kids are full-fledged citizens. They hire dozens of workers and pay them well.
They are not rapists or drug dealers. I have treated dozens of Hispanics in my practice. Not a single rotten apple in this group.
There are people who feel comfortable categorizing ethnic groups in one fell swoop. We listen to what they have to say; we interview them; we give them the attention they crave. I wanted everyone to get a glimpse of the other side of the coin.
May we all get along as the brethren that we are. May peace and love win.