Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Reaching the World One Person At A Time

In a world full of tragedy and sadness,there are still stories that give us hope. plk

Christmas spirit is in the giving


Published: Dec 25, 2004

Read the entire story at:


The Rev. Ray Selker didn't know what to expect when he got a request to visit a gravely ill farm worker at WakeMed. So he packed communion, a rosary and holy oil to anoint the sick. When he arrived at the hospital, he found a shy 25-year-old man from Mexico lying in bed unable to communicate with the doctors and nurses bustling around him.

The man, Mario Heriberto Suárez Vela, had come to North Carolina from Mexico on a work visa to harvest tobacco. A month later he was diagnosed with leukemia. And by all appearances, not a soul was visiting him. Selker stepped forward and asked how he was doing."I feel a little better," he told the priest in Spanish. Not entirely convinced, Selker sprinkled him with holy water, rubbed his forehead and palms with oil and celebrated Mass in the Roman Catholic tradition with which Suárez was familiar.

Months later, the answer to that prayer would fill a season of giving with the true meaning of Christmas.

Mario Suárez came to the United States in mid-August to improve the life of his wife and children. Instead he found himself struggling to keep his own. Born and reared in Nanacamilpa, a town of 10,000 in southern Mexico, Suárez scratched out an existence farming corn and doing odd construction jobs. When the work dried up this year, he, his wife and two boys, ages 6 and 2, moved to the sprawling capital, Mexico City, about three hours away. There, Suárez found a job taking inventory at a discount store. But the pay wasn't enough, and he applied for a guest worker visa.In mid-August, soon after it arrived, he and 50 other men boarded a bus for North Carolina.

Farmers in North Carolina employed 8,000 such legal laborers this year -- more than any other state. That's how Suárez wound up on a 200-acre farm in Cumberland County harvesting tobacco.

Suárez began to feel sick two days after arriving. He lost his appetite and felt nauseated. He was so dizzy he could barely stand up. He thought it was the chemicals used to cure tobacco. Many other workers felt sick after their first exposure, so he pushed himself to go on. "I didn't know what I had, but I couldn't stop working," Suárez said. By the third week, he came down with a cough. A few days later, he began coughing blood. On Sept. 23, Suárez arrived at WakeMed, unconscious. Doctors thought he had congestive heart failure and attached him to a ventilator. It took more than a week to diagnose his illness: acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer caused when malignant cells overtake healthy blood cells in the bone marrow.

He had no health insurance, no money.

Suárez could not have known then, but something new was beginning -- a season of giving and receiving.It started with Cumberland County farmer Arnold Smith.As soon as Suárez was admitted to the hospital, Smith contacted the N.C. Growers Association to see whether the group could get a family member to visit Suárez. "I didn't want him to die miles from home, alone," Smith said. The association arranged a visa for Yolanda Vela, Suárez's mother, and paid the airfare -- about $800. Later, the association and the other Mexican laborers donated another $1,600. On Oct. 9, Vela arrived from Mexico City and took her place at her son's bedside, sleeping in a recliner nearby. Later, he wired Suárez's wife $300 -- all his own money."I just couldn't believe the boy had probably spent his life savings to get here to make money for his family and was going to die and never see his children again," Smith said.

When Suárez asked for a priest, Selker, the associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in North Raleigh, got into his car and drove in.Beginning in October, Selker, known to most as "Father Ray," began to visit daily -- especially as the effects of chemotherapy began to ravage Suárez's body. Before long, he brought others -- St. Francis parishioners -- with him.

Greg Mintel, a member of the church, nearly broke down when he first saw Suárez.In the years Mintel has volunteered for the church, he has discovered a simple rule: The more you give, the more you receive. These days, he seeks out opportunities to give. Mario Suárez was one of those opportunities. The day he heard that Suárez and his mother needed a place to stay, Mintel made some phone calls and found a couple from the church who had just renovated their attic. They spoke Spanish and were happy to take them in. In the two months Suárez and his mother spent in North Raleigh, they got to know the church community, learned some English and experienced a Thanksgiving meal. The two could hardly believe their good fortune.

"In Mexico, we didn't think there were people like this here," Vela said.

Suárez, too, has let people know in his own shy way how grateful he is. There was the time on Thanksgiving night when Suárez took Mintel aside, looked him in the eye and said, "Thank you," in English.

There are many hurdles ahead. Suárez is back in the hospital and still weak after his second round of chemotherapy. He will need at least one more round. Even then, his doctor, Robert Wehbie, said he has a 50 percent chance of a full recovery. "If he hadn't been getting the care he's getting, he wouldn't be alive," Wehbie said. In Mexico, Suárez would never have been able to afford the medical intervention he is receiving free at WakeMed. Though the hospital won't say how much the treatment costs, WakeMed wrote off $100 million in charity care this past fiscal year.

Last Sunday, members of St. Francis dropped by some Christmas gifts: a tree to hang in the window, a cowboy hat and 20 quarters bearing the state symbols. Suárez is collecting all 50.

On Friday, Father Ray visited. Today, Mintel and his daughters, Chloe, 11, and Rachel, 9, will also drop in.

As he lies in the hospital waiting for his red blood cell count to rise, Suárez has a gift he didn't have before -- hope. His friends, members of St. Francis of Assisi, were also given a gift -- the true meaning of Christmas.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

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