Editor’s note: This column references infant mortality and pregnancy complications.
Also available in Spanish.
Those who see my youngest cousin, the smallest of the family, and whom we affectionately baptized as Bebé, see only a normal girl who is about to start primary school. Someone who doesn’t stop asking questions, who is always inventing something to do and pass the time. What some do not know is that she had to have more than ten blood transfusions after she was born.
My aunt, also the youngest of her siblings, had a fairly uneventful pregnancy. The doctor told her that she was worried because the baby was not growing enough, but no one in the family worried because she’s precisely the shortest of the seven children my grandmother had. She also didn’t have the typical pregnancy discomforts, so there was nothing to worry about.
As the due date approached, however, and after they decided on my cousin’s first name, my aunt began to feel dizzy. She had low blood sugar, aches, pains, and more. It was as if the pregnancy was catching up, but it still seemed like everything would work out, that there was no reason to be nervous.
I was working in a library at the time. On July 21, 2014, my mother called, telling me that they were at the hospital in my hometown, and that my aunt was giving birth, but had the beginning of preeclampsia, a complication during pregnancy where the mother’s blood pressure rises more than it should. It could have been fatal to her and the baby.
She told me that he was already stable, and that we would soon see my cousin. I was calm, and within minutes she called me again to tell me that they were both fine, that both my aunt and my cousin were stable. I didn’t think about it anymore. I kept working, and when I got home I called her to find out how everything was going. From what she told me, everything was fine. Over the next few months, I learned the details, and each one was scarier than the last.
The first thing was that the delivery occurred at eight months, which is fatal for the baby in most cases. As I learned later, if my cousin had been a boy, she would not be alive, due to some releated genetic conditions; even then, girls are at risk of dying at any moment. During those days, my cousin was with the other babies who were born prematurely. She was the only girl, and every day, she woke up to share a room with at least one newly-empty crib.
My aunt’s pre-eclampsia was not “normal,” and it got so high that the doctor asked my uncle and my grandmother who they wanted to save, the girl or the mother. My uncle is a man with a strong gaze, but he is calm most of the time. According to my mother, he began to cry like a child, and with good reason.
There was also the issue of weight and size. They told me that the baby was born healthy, but they did not tell me that an adult could hold in with the palm of one hand and that the smallest diaper in the hospital came up to her chest. An adult pinkie was thicker than her arm, and she hardly seemed to have any fat on her body.
After various complications, my aunt recovered, but the baby was in intensive care, with a 5% chance of survival and with all the conditions to lose the battle. The doctors didn’t want to give my family hope, so they said everything in the subtlest way possible, which didn’t help much either.
During this time, someone made a family call to Syria, the country where all my family comes from. Someone on the other end told them that the name they had chosen was fatal for the baby due to astrological conditions. They came up with a name that, they explained, was the correct one, and then everything stabilized. By then, my cousin had had more than 10 blood transfusions.
By then her parents and my mother had each made a promise. If the girl was saved, my mother would organize a dinner in her honor and would invite the Arab community in my hometown. As for my aunt and uncle, they would take their daughter to visit José Gregorio Hernández, in Isnotú in the state of Trujillo. It would be her first long trip, after she stabilized and everything was over.
It took a year for my family to recover from this episode and make sure there was nothing to worry about. My cousin began to grow, and with each day she had more energy and her voice became louder. After a year, we went to Isnotú, and my uncle, a faithful believer in the Druze religion, was the one who held his daughter and brought her closer to the statue of José Gregorio Hernández, known in Venezuela as El Médico de los Pobres, “the physician of the poor.”
José Gregorio Hernández Cisneros (October 26, 1865 – June 29, 1919) studied medicine in Caracas, Venezuela, and later in Paris, France, and even wanted to train as a priest, studying in Lucca, Italy. However, it was not his studies that made him famous, but that he saw and treated the poor without charging anything, and even gave them medicines, until he died when he was hit by a car.
I already knew the story of José Gregorio and that he was an important figure, but when we got to the sanctuary in Isnotú, his hometown, I was surprised to see the number of plaques in gratitude, all after a miracle that the doctor had granted. Entire walls were covered in plaques, flowers everywhere, and a statue stood in the middle of the place, just before the museum in his honor. Such is his fame that he became a folk saint, one of the most important figures in Venezuela. In June of this year, the Vatican proclaimed him blessed, and it is very possible that he will become the first Venezuelan Catholic saint.
There have been many similar stories in my family, such as when my uncles from France and Syria came to see my father, after almost 40 years of not being together, and we ended up in a gasoline smuggling station for taking the wrong road. Several cars surrounded us, trapping us. My mother began to pray for all of us in silence, and we left without a scratch.
Or like when my grandfather, may he rest in peace, a man with an unshakable faith, appeared to one of my uncles in a dream while he was kidnapped to tell him that everything would be fine; the next day one of the kidnappers let him go. There is also the case of another uncle, who began to decompensate, to feel severe discomfort in his head and chest, but without results in the examinations to explain it. He promised that if he got better he would give a kneeling lap at the mosque in Syria for John the Baptist, who is an important Arab saint to the Druzes, and he got better.
This was, however, my first experience with a figure of another religion. Since then, I have much greater respect for the statue of the Doctor of the Poor that is in my house. I keep him in mind when I perform reiki therapies, and my mother, eternally in love with her roots and culture, is a faithful believer in him.
After several years of thinking about it, because I didn’t see the point of someone from another religion listening to my family, I understood that, as long as the heart is believing, honest and respectful, religion does not matter – and also that I will be careful when choosing the names of my children.