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Starting Point

Angels come in unlikely forms


I’m Ida,” the middle-aged, African-American woman said with a smile like sunshine as she confidently entered my house. Her hair was beautifully cornrowed, and she wore a bright, multicolored dress over her small, round figure.

I had been waiting anxiously for her. Exactly a week after my hysterectomy, an ambulance had rushed me to the emergency room when I started to bleed from the surgical incision.

The E.R. doctor tried to get in touch with my surgeon, but he was out of town. “I’m going to put a bandage on this,” he said. “They’ll take care of you tomorrow at the university clinic.” He then said curtly, “If your intestines fall out tonight, get to the hospital fast.”

I’m a person who worries about recurrent hangnails, so “if your intestines fall out” kept me up, terrified, for most of the night. The next day at the clinic, the young doctor said, “A hematoma or blood clot has formed and eaten a hole into your abdomen.” After swabbing out blood and clots, the doctor measured the wound. “An inch down,” she said, “and a 3-inch tunnel down your navel. You’re going to need visiting nurses to clean and pack the wound until it heals.”

I had an open hole in my stomach, exposing me to the possibility of infection, which might or might not be treatable with antibiotics. The fear I’d felt since the trip to the emergency room intensified. Would I live through this? What would the visiting nurses be like? I quickly realized they would be my lifelines and I waited anxiously.

As Ida unpacked, cleaned and repacked my wound, she told us she had been a wound care nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 25 years before switching to a career as a visiting nurse. After several other visits, we also learned that she was childless but had several “godsons” at her church where she sang in the choir every Sunday.

Each time the wound was unpacked was an ordeal for me. Not because of pain, but because of my constant apprehension about infection. Sensing my fear, Ida took my mind off of what was happening by telling me about her travels. “I went to Japan with my godson. It was wonderful. And my sister and I are going to Korea to see my niece who is in the Army.”

Often, the nurses’ registry did not send Ida. Many of the other nurses were coldly efficient, and on one occasion, one of them felt a lump just above the wound and said it might be the beginning of an infection.

This sent me into a tailspin of worry until Ida came. Close to tears, I showed her the lump.

“Diane,” Ida said, lifting her purple blouse, “look here.” I saw the same sort of lump on her side. “That’s my gall bladder scar. All incisions heal that way. You’re healing, Diane. What you need to do is to take your worry and give it over to God.”

God. I had skateboarded through life on 47 years of good luck and good health. My attention to my spiritual life consisted of Mass on Christmas and Easter and the rote prayer I said every night, which was more a superstitious exercise than a conversation with the Lord. I was always too busy, too earthbound to get spiritual.

Now I lay with a hole in my stomach, the most vulnerable I’d ever been in my life -- fearful and constantly on the verge of tears. Unable to think about a future, even to write -- my favorite pastime. If there had ever been a time I needed God, this was it.

But Ida didn’t proselytize. She witnessed to her faith in the way she lived her life -- lovingly caring for the niece she’d raised, her niece’s boys and an elderly, chronically ill “godfather.” When her brother in Florida became terminally ill with cancer, he moved to California so Ida could nurse him. Ida lived life to the fullest and whenever she came into our house, she brought the joy and love of that living with her.

“Do you think I’m going to get well?” I would often ask.

“Of course. Healing takes its own time.” She would measure our progress by putting a cotton swab into the wound. Little by little there was less blood on the swab. “See how far we’ve come,” she’d say. “It won’t be any time at all before you’re fine.”

And she was right. The day finally came when the tunnel had closed and the hole was almost completely healed. Two months after I met her, Ida officially discharged me and showed me all I’d need to know about flying solo with wound care.

Realizing my apprehension at being on my own, after I’d hugged her goodbye, she took my hand and said, “Remember, Diane, with your problem you’ll do the best you can, and that will be good enough.”

Though the wound is one of the worst experiences I have ever been through, I am grateful for it because it brought Ida into my life and brought me closer to God. Sometimes God puts human angels into our lives. Sometimes their hair is delicately cornrowed and they wear dresses the color of the rainbow. Ida was definitely mine.

Diane Hill writes from Solana Beach, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999