St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center
SBJ Home ׀ Medical Missions ׀ Heart of Flesh Newsletter ׀ Newsletters Archive ׀ Needs
Light of the World Charities
There are more than 200 references in the Sacred Scriptures to “birth” and “born.” The Bible is bursting with birth! The Old Testament speaks of the birth of patriarchs, judges and kings, and uses the imagery of birth to speak about significant moments and transitions in the history of God’s people. The centerpiece of all these references, of course, is the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, which we celebrate at this time of year.
Both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, in the first chapters of their Gospels, recount for us the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the betrothed spouse of Joseph of Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t shy away from speaking about the crisis this supernatural pregnancy precipitated in the relationship between Joseph and Mary, and also of how it was overcome by God’s intervention.
Both Evangelists relate the story of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem and how that event was miraculously made known to poor humble native shepherds and wealthy educated foreign astrologers. Luke depicts the pronounced poverty of the conditions into which Jesus was born. Matthew narrates the danger that followed upon the birth of the Lord which threatened His newborn life.
Because the birth of Jesus is so central to the drama of salvation, it was announced centuries before in the prophecies of Isaiah (7:14; 9:6) and Micah (5:3). And again, because of the significance of this event, “birth” becomes the privileged metaphor for speaking about new life in Christ. Jesus Himself speaks about being “born again of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5). Saint Peter speaks of “new birth unto living hope” (1Pet 1:3) and being “born again… of imperishable seed, the living and enduring word of God” (1Pet 1:23). In his first letter, the Apostle John refers repeatedly to being “born of God” (3:9, 4:7, 5:1).
The very fact that Jesus’ birth occupies such a prominent place in revelation, and that birth is used so frequently as an image to describe spiritual realities in the Bible, testify to the significance that the event of birth has in human consciousness. Even though our lives don’t begin at birth (we come into existence at the moment of conception), when we are born we emerge into a whole new dimension of life; we are introduced to the world, and the world to us. Because of the impact and ramifications of this event, it often evokes similar responses that the birth of Jesus evoked: uncertainty and even panic. The occasion of giving birth can also, as in the case of Jesus, be fraught with danger for both the mother and the child. The precariousness of the process is intensified if it is accompanied by poverty and its consequences, for example poor nutrition, and if it takes place in primitive circumstances, as did the birth of Jesus. This most significant of human experiences is all too often surrounded by insecurity.
Perhaps this explains why we felt it was necessary to initiate the St. Gerard Ministry pregnancy care program at the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center. Saint Gerard Majella, for whom the program is named, is the patron saint of women in childbirth because of an incident in his life when his prayers rescued a women giving birth from danger of death. So many of the women we serve face the prospect of a pregnancy characterized by the risks mentioned above. The rates of maternal and infant death are much higher in Honduras than in developed countries. Poor nutrition can lead to low birth weight and defects such as cleft lip and palate. Ignorance regarding prenatal development and the birthing process can expose both mother and child to greater peril. Going through childbirth without the personal support of another can leave a woman vulnerable to coercive methods of sterilization.
We attempt to address these risk factors by having women enroll in St. Gerard Ministry early in their pregnancy and make several visits to the medical center before giving birth. The women receive prenatal vitamins, and the development of their unborn child, as well as their own health, are monitored. At the time of birth, if at all possible, we accompany the woman to the local public hospital in a role of solidarity and support. After childbirth it is a joy to be able to present the mother with a gift of clothing and supplies for her newborn. Subsequent visits to the medical center can help to answer any questions the mother may have, and assure the ongoing health of both mother and child.
The program itself is in its “infancy stage,” and we continue to learn by experience how to best serve the women who come to us. The first few steps of this new “baby” have been made possible by grants from the John and Marcia Kelley Foundation and the Soroptomists of Stuart, Florida. We are blessed by the presence of lay missionary and business school professor, Richard Jesse, who is working on “post-natal” development for the program.
In all of this we see the hand of the Father reaching out to protect and safeguard this most important and yet vulnerable passage in life. Perhaps this is because, in a mysterious way, with the birth of every new child we are presented with a living image, a “reproduction,” if you will, of the birth of the Son of God in human flesh.
Life is hard in Honduras, especially for the poor. Above all for campesinos and aldeanos—people who live in the country and remote mountain villages. Their daily arduous labor includes hauling water and washing clothes by hand, chopping and carrying firewood, cooking over an open flame, hand-grinding corn into tortilla dough and roasted coffee beans into granules, plowing the earth, and planting and harvesting crops manually.
For such individuals, their bodies are their best tools and most precious piece of equipment, and physical health their greatest resource and most valuable asset. In this kind of setting any serious illness is a catastrophe and can mean the cessation of life and the disappearance of the means of sustenance. This is compounded by the fact that for the poor, healthcare is hard to come by.
The woman in this photo first came to us a few years ago. She was just a young mother then. She returned recently for follow-up surgery for one of her children.
By all appearances, she seems to have aged ten years in the two or three since we’d seen her last. Life is hard for the poor in Honduras, and almost unbearable when there’s sickness involved.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). These words are among the most beautiful and consoling promises of Jesus. Just to hear them brings relief to the heart. What an incredible honor it is for us at the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center to put them into practice and make them tangible for the poor. In the midst of the weariness of their daily toil, intensified by the added burden of illness, there’s a place of rest, a refuge of refreshment, a house of healing.
We may not be able to meet all the needs of the poor or solve all their problems, but at least we can help to lift the added burden of their medical needs and give them some relief. And for this we are deeply grateful to God, and to you. Grateful that the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center has the immense privilege of being a means by which Jesus fulfills His promises to the poor.
Human life is an amazing reality, in all its stages and in all its dimensions. In all its stages: the tender newness and innocence of infancy, the fresh wonder of childhood, the energy and promise of youth, the responsibility and stability of adulthood, the ripening wisdom of maturity and the serene frailty of old age. In all its dimensions: our skeletal structure, joints, ligaments and muscles, our heart and veins, our brain, spinal cord and nervous system, our respiratory and digestive systems, the all-encompassing quality of our sexual identity as male or female, and our reproductive capacity - so closely liked to the creative power of God. And beneath all this, the mysterious spiritual reality of a soul that makes us a person in the image of God who passes through all these stages, and holds all these dimensions together and makes them a whole.
Not for nothing did the Psalmist praise God because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), and marvel at the way that God knit us and wove us together in our mother’s womb (vv. 13, 15).
But what is even more amazing, and what we celebrate at this time of year, is that God Himself, in the Person of the Son, embraced human life, in all its stages and in all its dimensions, and made it His own in the Incarnation. Jesus Himself had (and still has in the glorified state of His resurrected body) all of that human/biological “fabric” that I mention above. I don’t say this in any way to be disrespectful, but rather to show how completely and to what extent God has embraced our human condition in Christ. He began life as a single-cell embryo, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He passed through infancy, childhood, youth and adulthood. And even if He didn’t live to old age here on earth, He experienced the ebbing away of life and death itself on the Cross in order to redeem us.
That’s why human life has infinite value, because it has been created, embraced and redeemed by God. That supremely important truth underlies everything we do at St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center, and enables us to unite faith and medicine.
We care for people in all of the stages of life that I mention above, with a special concentration of small children under six years of age (33% of patients) and females (66% of patients). While more than half of all our patients are minors, we also treat a considerable number of adults and senior citizens. All of them, of course, are very poor. Many come from mountain villages and would be unable to pay for the kind of treatment they receive at SBJ at a private clinic or hospital. It is our joy to offer it to them free of charge.
We have been able to treat conditions and illnesses affecting almost all of the systems, organs, tissues and other bodily aspects I mention above - either medically through consults, or surgically with the help of visiting teams. These include things like high blood pressure, epilepsy, skin disorders, parasites, infections, vitamin deficiencies, respiratory difficulties, stomach problems, and tooth decay in our new dental clinic. Past surgical mission specialties have included plastic surgery (cleft lip and palate, burn scars), general surgery (hernias and goiters), ophthalmology, urology, gynecology, and podiatry. Visiting specialists have included an oncologist, a pediatrician and a cardiologist. We have been able to help arrange surgeries in the US in the areas of orthopedics, cardiology and neurology.
In other words, all of the very particular and concrete dimensions of human bodily life, and all of the stages that we pass through, all of the dimensions and stages that God has created, embraced and redeemed in Jesus, are the things that we touch and treat on a daily basis at St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center.
It’s worthwhile contemplating, having just completed the Year of the Eucharist, the parting gift of our beloved Pope John Paul II, that the entire reality of human existence, created, embraced, redeemed and now glorified in Christ, becomes present to us in the Blessed Sacrament, reminding us once again of the infinite value and inviolable quality it has in the eyes and heart of God. That’s why the heart of the St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center is the Heart of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist reserved in the chapel, where we gather to pray daily. That enables us to maintain the focus of faith while we practice the matter of medicine.
At times during the history of Christianity, a supernatural experience has been accompanied by some kind of permanent physical sign that serves as an ongoing indication of the transcendent origin of the event. The first and perhaps most well known of these is the Shroud of Turin. After centuries of veneration as being the burial cloth of Jesus miraculously imprinted with the image of His body, a number of years ago it fell under scientific suspicion - only to be vindicated once again as very likely being the real thing. Another example is the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe imprinted upon the tilma or poncho of the Aztec St. Juan Diego in 1531. A further instance is the healing spring at the sanctuary of Lourdes in France that St. Bernadette Soubirous unearthed at the command of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1855. Each of these signs has continued to exist for centuries right up to our own day as reminders of the reality and power of God.
That is exactly the sense I get every time I visit St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center. I am amazed and in awe that a facility so beautiful and faith-filled (the staff gathers for prayer twice a day in the chapel!) exists for the sole purpose of communicating the love of Jesus Christ to the most poor in the form of absolutely free quality medical care. I ask myself, sometimes out loud, "How can this be?" "How did this happen?" I know well all the practical steps that were involved in the designing and building of the Center. I visited the site many times while it was under construction. I have the distinct impression, however, that the end result is something much more than the sum of all that was put into the project, that it is indeed a work of God. All of us who participated in this adventure have the profound and humbling awareness that we have been part of a miracle.
St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center is perhaps not a "direct" miracle in the same sense as the ones I describe above; it didn't fall out of the sky or just appear ready-made. It is rather an "indirect" miracle that God brought bout through the collaboration of many - an ongoing miracle of faith, a permanent sign that testifies to its transcendent origin. The signs that the Lord Jesus worked during His earthly ministry, as well as the ones He has continued to work through His followers throughout the ages, exist for the purpose of inspiring faith. The miracle of St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center also exists for a purpose, actually two purposes: to draw out generosity from the hearts of those who support it and to show Christ's merciful love to the poor who come seeking assistance. Because it is an ongoing miracle, it remains open for others to enter into and experience: the poor who receive surgery or treatment they never thought possible, and collaborators who are caught up into a work of God that stretches out beyond them into the realm of grace. Perhaps you are being invited to be a part of this continual miracle.
As you will read in this newsletter, St. Benedict is not only a miracle that is ongoing, but "on-growing" as well! The number of patients (mostly children and females) seen monthly has been steadily expanding toward 1000 - aided by the arrival of four new part-time volunteer doctors. An outdoor chapel and children's play area have been built for waiting visitors, donations of medicines and equipment have continued to arrive, and a pharmacy assistant has been added to the staff to keep up with the increasing demand. New opportunities are appearing on the horizon as well, in particular the possibility of becoming a regional center for village health awareness training and medicine distribution. So much has happened in the first few months of St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center's existence that it's been a bit of a challenge to keep up with - mentally and financially.
That St. Benedict Joseph is helping to meet an urgent need of the Honduran people is undeniable. A recent article in one of the major Honduran papers noted that there are only 2.28 doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants in a country in which there are more than two million hospital-treated cases each year. The shortage of surgeons and specialists is even more acute. And those who bear the burden of this scarcity most are the poor. What a privilege and a blessing and a joy to be able to help lift that burden from the hunched shoulders of some of our brothers and sisters.
It lifts my heart whenever I have the opportunity to visit the medical center and see the faces of families from our food list or humble mountain villagers being treated with dignity and respect and receiving necessary medical attention. "How can this be?" "How did this happen?" It's an ongoing miracle! To all who have helped make this possible, a heartfelt THANK YOU! To everyone else: Please enter in to our miracle!