Ever wonder what a typical day at the mission is like for Sister Peggy? Well, for starters, there is no such thing as a typical day. Each day brings new joys, sorrows, delights, frustrations and gratitude. As each day unfolds, immeasurable love is given and received.
Here is an abbreviated excerpt from Twice a Missionary: The Life and Times of Sister Peggy Byrne to share the happenings of one morning for Sister Peggy.
The upper rim of the sun casts light into the dusty air as Sister Peggy walks from her house to her office in the parish compound. Many of the parishioners in the barrio are already awake and walking in the streets. Men on their way to work nod at Sister Peggy in greeting; children headed for tutoring sessions stretch to their tiptoes to plant kisses on Sister Peggy’s cheek. Gringo visitors call to her and wrap their arms around her shoulders. They wish her good morning and then launch into questions about where to find a set of sheets or cold medication or access to the Internet.
Through it all Sister Peggy’s eyes survey sharply looking for those who don’t approach her on their own. She points to a woman crumpled in the corner of the courtyard. “That’s Cecilia,” she says. “She’s chronically depressed.” At the sound of her name, Cecilia’s eyes shift toward Sister Peggy. The rest of her body stays inert as if in hibernation.
When Sister Peggy reaches her office, a girl passes her with another smaller girl in her arms. The caretaker is about six years old; the cared-for is four or five. “Good morning,” Sister Peggy says to the caretaker and points to the smaller girl. “Is she sick?” The caretaker nods. “Where are you taking her?” As the girl answers, Sister Peggy follows them into the dark hallway on the way into the church. Together they talk and decide what to do next.
When Sister Peggy emerges from the hallway pointed toward her office door, staff is waiting with a small boy at their side. “Can you find someone to take care of this boy?” they says. “We found him in a garbage pile on my way over here.” Sister Peggy nods and smiles at the boy. He looks up at her, expressionless. His t-shirt and shorts are thin and full of holes. He has no shoes. His limbs are toothpick-thin and covered in gray dirt. His face is spotted with the blotchy markings of malnutrition. Sister Peggy puts her hand on his back and steers him through the door into the restricted area of the parish compound where locals other than employees usually aren’t allowed.
In the dining room, the boy’s eyes stop wandering and settle on the table that holds a bowl of oranges, boxes of tea and urns of coffee and purified hot water. Sister Peggy calls to two of the gringo volunteers who have visited Chimbote before. “Can you help this boy?” she asks. “You know where the extra clothes are. Have the women in the kitchen fix him something to eat. If you have any questions I’ll be in my office.”
The gringo women greet the boy and set to their tasks. Sister Peggy heads back toward her office. A few steps away from the door, she stops short. In front of her office window is a teenage girl and her father. The girl is a slight figure with stringy black hair and round cheeks. She introduces herself as Janeth (yah NETH). She is eighteen years old, she says. Might Sister Peggy be able to help her?
“Come in,” Sister Peggy says and unlocks the office door. Janeth turns to enter. She wears a pink sweatshirt and flared jeans fashionable enough to fit in at any American high school. But she walks into the office with a pronounced limp.
When Janeth and her father are seated, Sister Peggy begins the conversation. “What’s wrong?” she says. “Is it your leg?” Janeth pulls at the flares in her jeans until the fabric rests above her knee. Underneath her leg is swelled almost beyond recognition. The skin bubbles up in random, mountainous heaps on both sides of her knee. The knee is less swollen, but dotted by scars and discoloration. Blue veins thread through the lumps of skin. “How long has it been this way?” Sister Peggy asks. The girl thinks. “Um, eight years,” she says. “But I can’t take the pain anymore.” Her face is stoic as she explains her tale. She used to live in the mountains with her mother. Her mother beat her every day on the leg that’s now swollen. Eight years ago she came down from the mountain to live with her father. When she was younger she learned how to relieve the swelling and pain. She would lie on the sand floor of her family’s house and prop her leg against the woven reed wall.
Sister Peggy stops her. “Do you have beds in the house?” “No,” the girl replies. Sister Peggy makes a note while the girl continues her tale. When she’d lie on the floor and raise her leg, she tells Sister Peggy, the pain and swelling would recede and she would be able to return to school or chores. But for the last few years, when she stands up again, the swelling returns almost immediately. She could only walk a block or two before the pain reached an unbearable level. Now the girl’s eyes well up. “And because of it, I cannot work,” she wails. Her eyes beg Sister Peggy for an answer. Sister Peggy pats her shoulder. “Wait here,” she says and she goes to find one of the gringo visitors she knows, a nurse practitioner named Linda Mattlage from Cottage Grove, MN.
Meanwhile, she checks on the boy in the dining room. He sits in front of a plate of steaming eggs. His face is as close to the food as possible. He breathes in the scent of them as he eats. For the first few bites he’d eaten quickly. Now he’s pacing himself as if he knows his stomach will reject it all if he gives it too much, too fast. Nearby the two gringo volunteers wait for him to finish.
Sister Peggy finds Nurse Linda and returns with her in tow. Linda gently pushes at the skin and examines both sides of Janeth’s leg. “I have a test I want to do,” she says. “Follow me.” The girl, her father and Sister Peggy follow Linda to a couch in the gringo area. Linda sets her digital watch to zero and times how long it takes for the swelling in Janeth’s leg to recede. Good news – it only takes a few minutes. That means surgery will likely relieve her pain. This may be the most extreme case of varicose veins she’s ever seen, Linda tells Sister Peggy, and probably is due to trauma to the leg.
“Your leg will never look like the other one,” Linda tells Janeth. “But surgery will relieve some of your pain. Meanwhile, to reduce the pressure, lie on your bed and raise your leg above your heart.” Janeth smiles. “Gracias,” she says. Sister Peggy faces the girl. “We will call to schedule the surgery,” she says. “It will be paid for. You must check with me tomorrow to find out where to go.” She hugs the girl and shakes hands with her father. “Gracias,” the girl says over and over with tears in her eyes.
Sister Peggy returns to her office. It’s 10 a.m. and time to start the workday.
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