ELVIRA WHO CARES FOR ANGELSIn New York, she treats “condemned” newborns as human beings. Few survive, but all are loved. And the cross becomes the resurrection.
By Cristiano Guarneri
Ten centimeters of functional intestine - this is a unique circumstance to live with after seven weeks in the hospital. Alejandra is alive today because someone bet on this circumstance, while others were staring at the part of her intestine that was lifeless. Even after her first five years of life, you may go on looking at the wrong aspect of her situation. Now, Alejandra runs and goes to nursery school, and that’s fine. But she has a bothersome gastric tube that goes all the way down into her stomach.
Delving into the depth of Elvira Parravicini’s life and work is like walking along a path made of crosses and resurrections. This happens at Columbia University Hospital in New York City where she works as a neonatologist in a clinic for paediatrics. Elvira takes care of newborns affected by terminal illnesses. We are talking about, frankly, those who are born and die, sometimes, in a handful of hours, without any apparent cure that could prevent a final heartbeat.
The struggle, in the United States as anywhere else, is not just to prevent abortion, “it is about choosing to love them for those few moments of life or to let them pass away abandoned,” Elvira says. Where does she get the strength to do it, such a thin woman, so fragile? “Each child exists because an Other wants him to be: He gives him his value and I take it into account,” she whispers. You may say that this is simply something that makes sense to those who have faith; for the ones who put an Other in the midst. Elvira says more simply that this is the only possible way to stay in front of what happens.
“Surely, I cannot separate my life from the encounter I have had with Jesus,” she admits. “I don’t have one opinion as a doctor and another one as a Christian. And, since I am a doctor, I try to save these children and not let them die.”
Comfort Care begins with this provocation. In 2001, Elvira moved on from a team of doctors working in prenatal diagnosis at Columbia University Hospital since she found the solutions given to the cases as too predictable and mathematical: abortion and nothing else. Three years later, she returned because of an invitation from a colleague. The first important measure was to give the name of her new care programme. “Let us propose Comfort Care,” Elvira would announce in front of a case. “Just a little problem: even I,” she confesses, “didn’t know what I had in mind to do.” The application, however, is easier than the name that sums it up. “What does a child need? To stay near his mother and father. What is his main pleasure? To eat. Thus let us start from here: they need to be able to do it, even if only for the five minutes they will live on Earth.”
Then, another aspect of Comfort Care comes into play: Kangaroo Mother Care. The newborn is placed on the mothers womb where the little one is kept warm while drugs are administered against pain. We feed him. In her simplicity Elvira is captivating, and yet absolutely revolutionary:
“We are equipped so that they can live in the best possible way, so that they feel longed-for; loved for the time that is given to them. Did I ever tell you the story of the 40-year old mother? Her son was seriously ill, with nearly no chance of survival. The mother wanted to give birth to him. She held him in her arms during the his whole life: seven hours. I’ll say it again: seven hours. Then he died. In the end, she told me, ‘Thank you, because in his life my son only experienced love.’”
These are the signs of the resurrection contained within the crosses given in the lives of these children. Maybe they respond – yet never exhaustively – to the most human of questions, even for those who have faith: why does the Other, who “wants,” “consents” and “makes things happen,” allow that pain to exist in such a dramatic way?
“It is question that I often ask myself,” Elvira said with squinted eyes for a moment. “It is a mystery. A mystery of the cross,” she affirms, “within which, however, a moment of resurrection occurs. It is most obvious in the case of Alejandra who survived in spite of her prognosis. Sometimes this resurrection is more hidden in some cases but it is always present. When a mother, a nurse, a midwife or a father says, ‘Thank you, my heart has changed,’ there you witness the resurrection.”
To recognize it, however, is a work; “a work to fixate one’s gaze and mind,” Elvira explains. “If you don’t hope for a positive hypothesis, even when it may seem inconceivable, you hinder the possibility that the mystery may emerge before your eyes. You end up focusing your attention on the wrong details. This is the way culture makes us think today: that a person is equivalent to whatever he might or might not be able to achieve.”
However, don’t dare label her pro-life. “Many times they are more radical than many others. Even a life that isn’t born is not a victory for nothingness. He wins in any case because we all end in His embrace.”
Today in Hall A3 at 3pm, Elvira Paravicini will tell us about these crosses and resurrections that she witnesses every day. “To recognize them,” she says, “you need to respond to reality. There you’ll find an Other that will lead you to understand their meaning.”