In my ongoing effort to interview frontline workers to capture resilience stories, I found a nurse–married couple willing to sit for an in-depth interview. They practice healthcare in a largemetropolitan hospital. The names in this article have all been changed at the request of these professionals. On the way to capturing their experiences of the pandemic, another fascinating and inspiring story of resilience unfolded. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it with you. As a result, you are going to hear their story in two parts: both today, and next week! So today, I introduce you to this week’s main character, Virgilio Saner.
Virgilio stood on the porch-side of a screen door policed by the most diminutive bouncer imaginable. Irene, a small woman to begin with, was months into a death sentence provided by a virulent form of cancer. It was not hard to imagine the interior dialogue that was transforming Irene from a home health patient into an intimidating door keeper. “Damnit! I don’t care if he’s a nurse! Cancer or no cancer, the likes of him ain’t never stepped foot in my house, and ain’t never gonna!”
Many barriers had to be confronted along the way to bring Virgilio face-to-face with this tiny Cerberus/Tasmanian Devil. In the late Nineties, Virgilio loaded up his worldly possessions into two suitcases to leave the only land he had ever known to travel halfway around the world to rural Kentucky. He knew that in this new world every face would belong to a stranger, and his face would not look like any of theirs! Virgilio, like the future wife he would one day meet in this new land of opportunity, was one of thousands of Filipino nurses who took advantage of a US policy that offered a pathway to citizenship. To fulfill his end of the bargain, he had to practice in an underserved, out-of-the-way place! And he was soon to find out that rural Kentucky fit the bill on both counts.
In the 1920’s, Alfred Adler, the onetime devotee of Sigmund Freud, described his research on a thing he dubbed, the “inferiority complex.” In a nutshell, people operating out of this framework start off with a basic sense of inferiority. To overcome it, they push themselves to levels of achievement that are quite often remarkable. In our prolonged conversation, I never detected any internalized sense of inferiority or insecurity, but I did hear the following story.
“I soon discovered that where I was at in Kentucky, is the Deep South in many ways. You can tell by the way people look at you. You can see it in them. When you’re there, you feel that you’re different. I looked different. My training was different. I felt that I had something to prove. This made me work harder to show that I was as good a nurse as those who were trained here!” This feeling of “having to prove something” kept him glued to that porch like some sort of incredibly benevolent species of Filipino badger .
“She would not let me into her home. She called me the “n” word” through her screen door. I told her, ‘let me see you, and I won’t ever come back here.’ My territory was way out in the country. I knew that if someone else had to come to her home, it would be way out of their way. I was afraid that my visit here would not be paid for. And I was trying to prove that I was an excellent nurse. I convinced her to call my supervisor so that he would tell her that I had to be able to assess her. She made the call, and finally agreed to let me in. I was able to get on the same wave length with her. At the end, I said, ‘As I promised, I won’t ever come back!’ She said, ‘you can come back!’ She knew her death was immanent, but she was still sharp. She gotreally teary. She asked me for a picture of myself. I asked, ‘Why?’ She explained that her family has a history of displaying family pictures in the coffin with the body during visitation at the funeral home. She explained that she was from Mississippi, and only ever knew white people. ‘I don’t want to take this attitude that I had at the beginning of our visit to my grave. I want to leave it here!’ We hugged each other. When I went to her wake, I saw my picture in the coffin along with her family pictures. Her whole family was there. They all hugged me.”
It is not too dramatic to say that Virgilio’s tenacity led to a death bed conversion that sent ripples of healing out into his patient’sfamily. This story took place almost twenty years ago, but it in our time, it seems as though so many of us have no room in our homes or our porches for those who differ in the way they look, think, vote, or live their lives. What was that durable, resilient ingredient in Virgilio that kept him on that porch, and inevitably proved stronger than a multi-generational legacy of hatred and fear?
The answer: a different multi-generational legacy! Give a listen. “I wanted to bring pride to my family by being a good nurse. My parents sent me to school and supported me and my siblings, even though they had nothing. My parents would say, ‘Your only inheritance will be your education.’ So in my mind, I tried to excel. Whenever I excelled, I shared that with them.” At this moment in the interview, his wife Elsie jumped in to point out that he has won every recognition possible for nursing excellence in his prestigious metropolitan hospital.
I recognize in Virgilio’s story a lesson for the rest of us who would hope to raise resilient children who will leave our world better than they found it. In his narrative, I hear echoes of the Family Systems theories of Ivan Boszormeny-Nagy. He posited that when care-givers give their children empathetic and self-donating love over time, those children will grow up with a kind of in-born sense of gratitude that they will pay out into theirworld. Such “wealthy” recipients of this kind of legacy naturally desire to spend their inheritance expressing a kindness and generosity toward the people in their own personal world. In Virgilio’s case, it was a steadfast commitment to excellence in his chosen profession.
Ever feel overwhelmed by the challenges facing our world today? Virgilio’s story reminds us that each investment we make in loving a child…any child…with ongoing self-donating love will impact the world in surprising unforeseen ways.