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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My vacation in the "Land of the Swallows"

Rather than losing my head, I could have easily lost my mind.  “Be careful,” a few of my friends advised when, with excitement, I told them that my husband and I were heading to Mexico, on a vacation. 

Despite all the macabre news of violence and crime in Mexico, our vacation was a go.  Being a native Colombian, I had already learned of similar violencia de las drogasdrug-related violence.  I sighed with disgust as I thought of the innocent victims of this violence.  I couldn’t repress my angry thoughts 

The social worker in me was thinking.  I sighed again, trying to push away my negative thoughts as I started packing.  I was able to switch my focus to more pleasant thoughts.  A white sand beach, a warm blue ocean, the splendid sunshine... the promise of a paradise island: Cozumel.

The brochures held true to their promise.  As soon as we arrived to Cozumel the peaceful and friendly island atmosphere embraced us.  We were received by fabulous local people proud to be our hosts. 

Cozumel, located off the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, a 249-square-mile island, with a population of more than 75,000, was now our place of temporary solace.  We learned that the name Cozumel means "Land of the Swallows" in Mayan, and was named so due to the indigenous, graceful birds that can be seen regularly patrolling Cozumel's beautiful beaches and coastline.

Land of the Swallows, I repeated in my mind.  A piece of heaven, I grinned. 

A turquoise sea, with playful waves, welcomed the cruise-ships that stopped at the island.  Crystalline water made the beach a delightful place. Colorful fish were easily spottedFriendly fish, almost tamed, perhaps accustomed to being around ocean lovers swam by, or simply a behavior they learned from the localskind and welcoming Mexican people, who always had a courteous  “hola” for everyone,  with natural smiles blossoming on their faces. 

We learned that Cozumel is known throughout the world for its first-rate sport fishing and scuba diving conditions. That Jacques Cousteau first introduced the world to Cozumel’s  abundantly vivid sea life, and the area’s second largest coral reef in the world: the great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (once called the Palancar Reef).

As for us, we indulged in reading, writing, walking, snorkeling, conversing.  All simple activities made dazzling and more intense than usual. 

Day and night. 

Following our adventurous spirits, my husband and I decided to tour the Mayan ruins on the island. We got in our rental car, and headed off to San Gervasio, an archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization.

“Cozumel was settled roughly 2000 years ago by ancient Mayans, a seafaring people, who saw Cozumel as a commercial trading stop as well as a sacred shrine. 

“The island of Cozumel was a mecca to Mayan women who made the voyage from the mainland to Isla Cozumel in large dugout canoes to worship Ix Chel, the Goddess of fertility. Leaving the mainland from what is now Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mayan women crossed the treacherous channel in open canoes to give offerings at the alter site of Ix Chel.  What remains now of the altar and ceremonial center of Ix Chel can be seen at the San Gervasio ruins site near the center of the island.” www.cozumelinsider.com/History

San Gervasio was a place for contemplation and admiration.  I could have easily bent my knee to the ground to express my deep respect to the Mayan culture.  An undeniable feeling to genuflect persisted as I continued exploring the ruins.  As my hands touched walls, rustic steps, loose rocks, road dust, my mind was fixated with what to me were images of the Mayan people.  Like in a time machine, my mind was taken to the past by the wings of my imagination. The Mayans. The Ancestors. My own ancestors, perhaps, as I wondered how intertwined they were with my genealogical tree of ancestors, the Andean natives.  

“And you probably wonder, what happened with the Mayans?”  My  thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a tour guide, being followed by a group of tourists, eagerly listening. “Where did they go? Did they disappear?” 

The man paused.  There was a touch of suspense in his voice.  The tourists remained quiet and expectant. 

“No, they didn’t disappear. We are the Mayans’ descendants!”  he proudly exclaimed.  Several people smiled, with a gesture that appeared to me a near sign of relief. 

I grinned, and continued taking more pictures. 

After leaving San Gervasion, we began another journey:  a drive around the island.  A road circles the entire island. The road is well maintained, so the ride was easy and enjoyable.  We visited the eastern or “wild side” of the island.  This side was  nearly deserted, spotted with a few little ramshackle beach bars and restaurants.  We heard that a hurricane devastated the eastern side of the island several years ago, causing major destruction, including wiping out of the power transmission systems. 

“There’s not much here to see,” my husband commented, blandly, as we looked at wild vegetation on one side of the road, and the rocky, turbulent beach, on the other.

“I actually think this is very interesting. We are exploring the rustic side of the island. Don’t we all have a wild side? And so does Cozumel!”  I raised my eyebrows, teasingly, then laughed.

Shopping had to be included in our schedule. Not that I care about spending a great deal of time, or money, on shopping during my vacation, but I do like to visit the local stores, and browse the locals crafts.  

While hunting for souvenirs, I was suddenly stopped by a young man who offered me yarn name bracelets. 

Friendship bracelets! I was excited. What better souvenirs that personalized handmade bracelets.

I picked two bracelets from his display board, and asked him to make a couple more with more uncommon names. He told me it would take about 10 minutes to make them.  I agreed to wait.  As his skillful hands started to work on the yarn, I initiated a conversation.  We talked about his job.  He had moved to Cozumel just four months earlier, along with two of his brothers.  He said he came from Guerrero, where  unemployment was a serious problem.  We talked about Acapulco and the recent violent events.  He regretted that it was happening and affecting his country. 

“I am sixteen,” he said, and I thought he actually followed quite well my grown-up conversation considering his age.  He was polite and  knew how to keep the customerme motivated.  I was amazed at his dancing fingers which, as if by magic, transformed the threads of yarn slowly into colorful names. The bracelets looked precious. He well deserved the twenty dollars he charged me.  Watching him craft the bracelets was as entertaining as the product itself. 

I was thrilled as I envisioned my friends’ faces of surprise when I’d hand them the friendship bracelets.  Bracelets with their names, handcrafted by a fine young man.  My nameless, winged-hearted friend from the “Land of the Swallows.” 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year: Celebration of a Second Chance at Life

Steve? Is that Steve?  I was astonished as I looked at Steve’s photos on the internet.  Steve’s picture showed him riding his motorcycle.  Another picture showed him in a suit, wearing a charming smile.  I was looking now at a strong and happy man.  A man full of life.

That was not the Steve I had met a few years ago.  He was one of my residents in the nursing home.  After I met him I became more careful at saying: ‘I love working with the elderly in the nursing home’ because he was not an elderly man.  Nursing homes, unlike many people believe, are not necessary for older people, or the place to die.  I’ve met quite a few younger residents whose unfortunate path of life and health battles forced them to be in a facility where they can get the care and assistance they need.  

Steve was one of them.  In his thirties, Steve was a frail man, afflicted by kidney failure and diabetes.

“I like your drawing!” I told Steve the first time I entered his neatly kept room.  The walls were decorated with pictures he had drawn. There were also books, posters, a collection of music CDs, and videos.  I learned later that Steve wrote poetry. 

Art, reading, music... food for the soul, I was amazed. That was a unique room. Steve was a distinctive resident. 

Over a year I had the opportunity to follow Steve. He was a very delightful and polite man. These qualities were not enough for some other people to have sympathy or to feel some compassion.  

“He is getting more attention than anyone else!”  a resident exclaimed once.

It took time to make others understand that even if Steve was younger than most of the residents, the complexity of his medical condition made him frail and feeble.  Steve fainted and had to be rushed to the hospital a few times. 

I learned later that the nursing home was not the only battlefield in Steve’s life.  The nursing home was perhaps the easiest one.  Steve’s childhood was marked with sad events, starting when he lost his mother at age twelve.  Tired of living in a home where abuse, alcohol and drugs were part of the daily routine of his father and stepmother, Steve moved out at age sixteen. 

Life for him was not better on the streets.  For the next three years, Steve was involved in drugs, alcohol and theft.  His hot temper led him into physical fights, with his life in peril a few times.  The loneliness of being homeless, and later the bitterness of jail time made Steve touch the bottom of misery.  One person, only one person, came to jail to visit Steve during his nine-month sentence: his church Pastor.   Steve  attended  the Baptist church on and off.  Eventually, his only light became his faith.  With the mentoring of his pastor, Steve’s spirituality started to give him strength.  And more importantly, hope. 

Steve earned his GED, and with help of his Pastor, enrolled at Baptist Bible College. This is how Steve describes this chapter of his life:

“I was kind of worried about starting school so late in life, being 24 at that time, but I was also scared because I knew that I had trouble in high school trying to pass any of my classes. These fears and worries didn’t  last long.  I actually loved school and was interested in everything I was learning.  I was able to find a part of me that I never realized ever existed.  I was on the National Dean’s List almost every year that I was there.  It was after two years of school that I realized what God wanted me to do. I was to get a Masters in Counseling so that I could help people who were dealing with things in their lives that I had gone through in mine.” 

After graduating, Steve lived with his brother and continued his involvement with church activities.  At church, he met a woman who later became his wife.  After two years of marriage, Steve started to experience serious health problems.  Steve was diabetic since age nine.  This condition was never a concern for him or anyone in his family.  Now Steve was suffering the consequences.  As Steve’s health deteriorated, his wife started to have an affair with another man.  Steve attempts to convince his wife to go through counseling and save their marriage were unsuccessful.  One day his wife came to him, and told him she was pregnant with her lover’s baby and she wanted the divorce. 

As Steve’s marriage failed,  so did his kidneys.  Steve’s life went into another phase:  the nursing home resident.  He had no other option but be in a facility where he could have twenty-four hour care.  Although Steve resided in nursing homes for eight years, he never gave up on his hope of getting his health back, and going back to the community.  Now Steve needed a kidney transplant. 

“During all the many surgeries and sicknesses I went through during the eight years of dialysis and living in nursing homes, I had never lost my faith in God.  If anything, I would have to say my faith grew stronger for the simple reason that God had pulled me through things that I was watching other patients die from on a regular basis, things that my doctors themselves never thought that I’d survive.  I had however, given all of my health problems over to God and told Him that I accept the fact that He is in control and that I was ready to leave this world at any time if He was ready to take me.  It was only then that I stopped fearing death and accepted that eventually it comes to everyone.”

In the meantime, Steve had kept a close relationship with his brother. Now a Pastor, his brother was also his spiritual mentor and main support.  In later years, their father was terminally ill.  Steve started to visit his father and for first time share the love of father and son that never was expressed in the past. Their bond was brief, as Steve’s father passed away soon after their reencounter. 

I left the facility where Steve resided, and learned that he also left soon after that.  His health stabilized enough that he was able to move into an apartment, and live as independent as possible. Yet he had to continue his dialysis, with great deal of uncertainty as he received shocking news:

“I was told after several surgeries and attempts to fix my vascular problem, that I had no more good veins in my body that would be strong enough to use and withstand my dialysis treatments.  My vascular surgeon told me that I had nothing left that would be strong enough to work with.  I was at the end of my rope.”

Against all odds his faith and willpower endured. 

“It was after my final graft failed and my options had run out that I contacted my transplant center and asked them what my chances of getting a kidney were.  I had been told two years prior to this that I would most likely never get a transplant due to having a high antibody level in my blood.  I had already been on the transplant list for six years and had several calls to receive transplants but so far every time I went to the hospital I was sent back home because of the antibody level being too high.  At this point, I needed a miracle.”

And Steve’s prayers were answered. On July 16, 2010 Steve received a call from the transplant center.  When he arrived, he was immediately admitted.  Lab work was done quickly.

“The results had come back and they were all good, the operation was going to happen. The excitement, as well as shock, set in at this time.  I asked if they could wait a few minutes for my family to get there, and I was told no, it had to happen now.  I started praying and thanking God.”

Curious about why this transplant surgery was going to work, and where the organs were coming from, Steve asked the doctor about the donor.  The surgeon simply explained that the donor was a twenty-year old healthy man who had a seizure that put him in a comma.  After determining that the young man’s brain was dead, the family decided to take him off of life support, and asked that his organs be harvested and donated. 

“The surgeon told me that they held those organs for me specifically because the match was perfect, and that the donor had antigens in his blood which would counteract the high antibody levels in my blood. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a miracle.”

Steve’s humble heart felt for his young donor.  His reflections never stopped:

“I felt bad for the young man who was only beginning his life and ended up losing it and donating his organs to someone who had already lived and brought his health issues on himself.  Because of this man’s death I was given a second chance at life.”

Steve’s family arrived right at the time he was being wheeled to the operation room.  Steve got to share a few minutes with them.  He was now ready.

Steve underwent kidney and pancreas transplant that lasted a little over five hours. The operation was successful and he recovered quickly.  It has been five months since the surgery.  Steve is now diabetes-free and dialysis-free. 

Steve had recently visited the dialysis center to see the staff who took care of him for years.  One of the nurses became tearful and told Steve that “no one has ever come back after having a transplant to show their appreciation for what we have done for them.”  And to his surprise, Steve was offered a job at the dialysis center.  A job that he describes as: “doing the same treatments that were done on me that helped keep me alive long enough to receive my transplant.  They believe I can relate to the patients, trying to encourage them at a point in life when there seems to be no hope.  I look forward to doing this.”

I was speechless when I saw Steve’s photos, as it had been two years since the last time I saw him at the nursing home.  I was tremendously touched at learning about his new life, about the miracle of “a second chance at life” as he describes it.  Steve, once my resident, now my friend, is one of the most inspiring persons in my life. 

Happy, blessed and glorious New Year, Steve!