Grace for Everyone
July 20, 2006, —
At a crowded intersection in one of the most populated, impoverished and unsanitary cities in the world, a respite home stands as a sanctuary. Inside its doors is a woman who has become a guardian angel to thousands, welcoming those whose safety nets, immune systems and emotional endurance have all but failed them.
Sister Glenda runs the Nirmal Hriday ("Holy Heart") respite home as its sister superior and follows in admirable footsteps. It was here in the Kalighat district of Kolkata — a city home to more than 4.5 million people — where Mother Teresa built her first home for the most destitute of her community. It was long before HIV and AIDS were a part of our world, though the mission translates to the crises of today by seeking to help those "discarded" by society, who are facing all odds and have nowhere left to turn. India has more than 5 million people living with HIV and AIDS, the second-highest population of any country in the world.
"This home was Mother's first love," says Sister Glenda. "She first started her work here, and she always wanted to look after the dying."
On any given day, a few more people find their way to the doorsteps of Nirmal Hriday, also known as Mother Teresa's Home for the Sick and Dying Destitute. They suffer from AIDS, malnutrition, cancer or unidentified illnesses that leave them too weak to go it alone. The histories that led them here are varied, but their needs are the same: medical and emotional care, a hope that they might see this trial through, or a place to rest with dignity in their final hour.
Refuge Against the Odds
Despite the name, the home has an increasing number of survival stories. An estimated 70 percent of patients become healthy enough to leave the home. Last year, of the 1,200 patients admitted, 762 were discharged.
"A majority of our patients suffer from malnutrition," says Sister Glenda. "Before they come, the people have nothing to eat. Nothing."
CRS supports the home with supplies of bulgur wheat and oil for daily meals. It is an extension of a deep partnership that began with Mother Teresa in 1951, and has continued and expanded without interruption to several Missionaries of Charity homes throughout the country.
Yet, even with the survival of so many under Sister Glenda's care, the loss of patients takes an emotional toll on those so compassionately looking after them.
"Every day, we have dying cases. Every day. People come with sicknesses for which they are not able to get treatment. They are coming and dying; just entering the house dying," says Sister Glenda.
A 2002 report by the CIA's National Intelligence Council predicted 20 million to 25 million AIDS cases in India by 2010, more than any other country in the world. Even so, the stigma for those who have the disease is so overpowering that it is common for people to be disowned, shunned by society and banished from schools, jobs, social services and even hospitals. Their access to medical care is virtually nonexistent; their connection with a support network, a distant possibility.
Sister Glenda leads a small team of nurses and volunteers as they carry out physically and emotionally demanding tasks. Together, they selflessly take part in sweeping and cleaning, bathing and dressing, providing medicines, washing clothes, scrubbing toilets, and socially interacting with their patients. When possible, they bring in a projector to show a movie — a burst of entertainment that can keep people smiling for days.
The amenities are minimal and the facilities basic, with only two large wards separated according to gender, a kitchen, and a mortuary. But the mission is simple, too: to care and to love.
Here, all are treated with the same dignity. The bond that Sister Glenda builds with her adult and elderly patients crosses over to people in other homes. Because of the close network of Missionaries of Charity homes, their beneficiaries often overlap — children raised in orphanages at one center become students at another. A sick person in one home may be buried in another.
On this day, Sister Glenda spends a quiet moment in the cold mortuary wrapping the body of Pabdhi, who was brought to the respite center the night before from the House of Mercy orphanage for children with mental and physical challenges. Pabdhi was only 14 years old.
"When I saw Pabdhi, I knew she was in trouble," says another sister superior, Paula Marie, who worked closely with Pabdhi at the orphanage. "At 7:15 in the evening, I said a prayer to my Mercy. One hour later, she was gone … and that was it. But, she still had light in her eyes. After mass that night, there was no light anymore.
Though Pabdhi died at the school, she was taken to Sister Glenda and Nirmal Hriday before her burial. "Every Missionaries of Charity house has a mortuary, but not every house mortuary has air conditioning, you see," says Sister Glenda.
She dutifully wraps Pabdhi in a soft cotton blanket that she covers with a wreath of fresh flowers. Above Pabdhi on the wall is an etched sign that reads, "I am on my way to Heaven."
Sister Glenda then returns to the hundreds in her wards — some of whom may leave one day in better health, some of whom she may wrap as she did Pabdhi — and engages them in conversation, inquiring about their well-being.
Here, despite the odds against those who would be considered the most destitute of our world, they have refuge. They are not defined by disease or class; no stigma is here to chase them, no debt to overwhelm them, no curse to punish them. They have come home — to a place where they may gather their strength, fight to overcome the odds, or peacefully let go the weight of their pain.
"Mother's blessing is here — really, it is overflowing," says Sister Glenda of Mother Teresa's presence. "We have no problem," says Sister Glenda. "Mother said when she was dying, 'I will help you more when I am with Jesus.' We only depend on God … and God gives us the grace for everyone."