My friend is an Irish nun, an English nurse, and a Peruvian missionary.
I met her over 40 years ago when she was an energetic idealist with a call to dress the wounds, cure the sickness, and hold the hands of the dying among Lima’s poor.
Today, in her 80s and with health concerns of her own, she is an energetic idealist who still can’t seem to do enough to answer that call.
She runs a small hospital tucked away in a mountainside that was once the city dump.
She has attracted a community of nurses and doctors who refuse care to no one, birthing their babies, mending their limbs and removing their tumors.
Each day, hundreds line up for their meds for everything from HIV-AIDS to diarrhea, both common and chronic in neighborhoods like hers.
Catching her one evening at the end of another 12-hour day, I asked her what kept her going. I expected to hear about the personal reward of saving countless lives and helping those who had nowhere else to turn.
I got the story of Vilma instead.
Vilma was 17 — thin, cute and penniless like many her age in the barrio. Her health was average for the deficient nutrition and crowded conditions of her home.
Her brother got tuberculosis, not the consumption that sent the wealthy to sanitaria a century ago or posed the tragedy in Victorian novels, but the kind that plagues the poor — the mycobacteria that feast in humble homes, infecting one member of the family after another, leaving a path of night sweats, weight loss, and bloody coughs.
Vilma got it. She started a regimen of free medication.
Then she saw a dress in a store. She had to have it for her 18th birthday and pursued it with the singular passion of someone who never had anything new.
She worked long hours at a bakery to put aside a little for the prize. She didn’t have time for meds and in the euphoria of her quest, she felt fine.
She sloughed off the fatigue and didn’t notice her hanging clothes. She bought that dress, but at 18, she was buried in it.
My friend confesses that she doesn’t understand how anyone, no matter how poor, could risk her life for something like that. Still, it is the lost like Vilma, and not the saved, that get her out of bed.
The reflection was originally published in the July 12, 2013, edition of The Catholic Missourian.