Sometime during her second bout of cancer, Neusa unceremoniously replaced her five inch stilettos for red flats. Today, she appears in the hospital lobby to escort our volunteer delegation to the Pediatric floor, hugging each person, instantly transforming them into to a favorite niece or nephew. Although Neusa had just met this crop of Soaringwords’ volunteers, she is now surrounded by fifteen adoring fans who immediately experience the largeness of her heart and the luminescence of her soul. As our group waits in the lobby next to the bank of elevators, I distribute name tags and feel the excitement amplify. I look down and notice that Neusa is wearing flats. Interesting, since this is the first time in six years that I am seeing her feet in a pair of shoes that do not make me wince. I believe that hospital elevators are a throw-back to turn of the century at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I always imagine that a team of beefy sixty-year-old elevator operators are sweating profusely as they heave and ho, riding shotgun on top of the elevator cabs, manually hoisting the elevators up and down the cool, dark shafts. How else could it possibly take so long? Thankfully, this hospital is so old that it does not have the ubiquitous flat screen TV blaring an upbeat hospital video that always feels like a non-ending infomercial. At annual medical conferences there must be a course for all hospital communications teams advising them that these videos allay the fears of patients or family members who are held captive waiting for the slow as molasses elevators.
The hospital communications teams listen and so the videos are crammed with a lengthy list of “medical facts and firsts,” interspersed with footage of happy, smiling patients. I take the opportunity to ask Neusa about her radical shoe selection. She smiles and says “These are more comfortable, Lisa.” The elevator door peels open onto the sixth floor and I wonder why a city planning bureaucrat actually thought it was a good idea to paint the walls of an inner-city hospital grey. Neusa barrels down the corridors of the Pediatric wing as if she is wearing rollerblades. Room by room she checks on patients and families with the warmth, charm, and humor of everyone’s favorite auntie or neighbor. In rapid fire Spanish she ascertains precisely what’s que-pasa-ing, what’s needed, and what she can do to make things work for each patient. In this place that is under-staffed and under-funded, Neusa lights up each of the dreary rooms. Her countenance reminds me of Florence Nightingale, a much beloved caregiver who became known across Europe as “the lady of the lamp” for her heroic campaign to eradicate cholera during the Crimean War. After working sixteen hour days supervising her tiny corps of nurses tending to thousands of wounded and frightened soldiers, Florence would walk among the soldiers’ cots at night, holding their hands and giving them hope. Neusa flys back to the doorway where we communicate in our staccato shorthand. I translate the shorthand – a first name, the gender and age of each patient — and weave it into a little profile that gives my volunteers some guidance and support before they enter the room for their visits. Neusa and I finish each other’s sentences and feed off our mutual desire to inspire each child, caregiver and volunteer to experience a compassion and love so complete that perfect strangers often become instant family in moments.
These short encounters can transform attitudes and allow patients and families to feel more hopeful, less isolated, and sometimes even stronger. After about 90 minutes of rounds, we’ve visited each patient in the entire hospital. Neusa nods to me and I smile. She presses the elevator button and our group makes an impromptu stop on the fourth floor. We walk a few steps to the locked door which guards the newborn nursery. Our group will get to spend a few minutes inside the nursery — a gift to thank the volunteers for a wonderful afternoon of visits. We stand in front of the glass window, pressing impossibly close to the pane, peering into the bassinets of the cutest group of one-day-old infants that one can imagine. So many little babies — some of them have tiny heads no larger than a tennis ball tucked inside a blue or pink stocking cap, while the heads of the other newborns resemble hearty human pumpkins. Three volunteers sit in rocking chairs, each one holding a precious baby tightly swaddled in a little hospital blanket with mauve and green stripes. The volunteer have knowing smiles and twinkly eyes. They quickly wave to our delegation before returning to the task at hand, feeding a baby girl, burping a baby boy and listening to secrets that the babies are whispering to them.
Although we cannot hear what’s being said through the glass, it seems apparent that sacred conversations are unfolding in the rocking chairs. Boy or girl, man or woman or man, I’ve never taken someone to this spot without engendering some serious cooing. Neusa’s wig was auburn and had a chic, full bob. It looked glamorous and I tell her so, even though I knew that she thinks I am just being kind, saying something to her out of sympathy. As we said our goodbyes, each volunteer gives Neusa a heartfelt hug before taking a pat from the Purell machine. My sister-in-caring remains firmly on her path. Sometimes, it’s not about the shoes.