Eulogy for Gerri Frechette

A letter from Father Rick

January 21, 2010

I remember when Mother Theresa died, whose sisters I have worked closely with for many years in Haiti, and I offered condolences to Sister Magda. Sister was from Spain and was a sister and a doctor, and I said to her in Spanish the expression of sympathy, “comparto tu sentimiento.” Literally that means, “I share your feeling”. She said to me immediately, “If you share my feeling, you are sharing my joy.”

I thought the response to be very odd, but today I fully understand it, many years later. That death brings sadness is obvious. Not too much to reflect on there. Sadness is because of love. Taking the sadness out of death means taking the love out of life.

But is not so obvious why death is the occasion for joy and it’s worth our thinking about. My mother was diagnosed with cancer about 8 months ago. Over these months she had time to think about her life and death, about all those she loved, and about her God. With the care of the best physicians and nurses, with the full devotion of her husband and children, she met the end of her life in a beautiful way. Slowly dying during mass at her bedside, dying shortly after my sermon on the merciful presence of the Blessed Mother who is with us “now and at the hour of our death”, she died during the consecration of the sacred bread and wine. I later asked my father, since mom died so soon after my talk, if he thought my words were lethal, and did mom in! He replied quickly, “your sermon darn near killed us all.”

Do you see all my friends from Haiti, here at mass? They arrived yesterday. For the last 6 days they have been digging the living and the dead out of the rubble. Digging with picks, shovels, knives, forks and their bare hands. They have buried the dead and bandaged the wounded. Digging out the wounded Dr Castro, the wounded Erin Kloos, the lifeless Molly Hightower, the lifeless Ryan Kloos. They pause from their heroic work to come and honor my mother today, and I am so grateful to them.

Imagine, the earthquake caused the death of 100,000 to the present count. The death of these people was so different from the death of my mother. Instead of 8 months to prepare, they had 34 seconds. Instead of constant attention and affection from loving families and skilled doctors, buildings fell on them, trapped them, crushed them and isolated them. Instead of being honored with a beautiful coffin, the precious white pall, the wonderful incense, they bloat and rot and make you turn your head and vomit. Instead of being laid tenderly in the grave as we will do to my mother today, they are lifted from the street by backhoes and front end loaders and dumped into huge trucks, arms and legs hanging over the sides like too many rotten crabs in a bucket. It is so different, so tragic, sad beyond words. Life has to end for everyone. But the way that life ended for Gerri Frechette is a cause of thanksgiving and joy, and our gratitude should make our hearts burst with zeal, to want to right the wrong for those whose death is a humiliation and a disgrace.

On January 6th as I came home from Haiti to stay with mom to the end, the Archbishop of Port au Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, asked me to let him know when mom died. He wanted to come and officiate at her funeral. On January 12th , just 6 days later, he was dead. Within 34 seconds the earthquake threw him from his 3rd floor balcony to the patio below, and the chancery fell on top of him, and the cathedral fell on top of the chancery. I tell you this for two reasons. First, to remember and pray for this kind pastor and bishop during this mass. And second, as an example of a simple reality. Did he ever expect to be dead before my dying mother? What are your expectations of your death? How secure are you sitting here at the funeral? Will you still be here in 6 days? Or maybe will you also be gone, with 34 seconds to prepare?

The point is a simple one. We cannot escape death. We should learn everything we can about it. This mass, this earthquake, should be a profound school of learning for us. To die the right way we have to know the right way to live. Right living is the preparation for right dying – even a death that comes in 34 seconds.

I asked my mother many times why she didn’t seem afraid to die. She told me she had a long and full life. She was very satisfied. I have noticed over many years of priesthood that people who feel empty are often very afraid of death, and people who feel they have lived a full life are not. And what is the right fullness? Dedication and love for other people, building up our life together, with each other and for each other, cementing our bonds with the only things that can last: faith, hope and love.

On another night, my mother told me her faith was her guarantee, her promise, her anchor. Mom’s faith was lived out without trumpet blasts, but visible for all these long years. She brought us to benediction before we could even spell it, to mass before we could see over the pew in front of us. Her whole life long she knew the essential place of faith in God, and tried to help us see it as well.

Mom told me on yet another occasion that she saw an angel twice in her life. I asked her if both times were at parties, especially toward the end of the night!. She told me that the second time was after her diagnosis, while laying awake at night worrying about how dad and the rest of us would do after she died. A firm hand held her shoulder, and a gentle voice in her ear, told her to trust in “the peace that is beyond all understanding”, and assured her that God would bring all things to a good end.

Do you believe in angels? Do you understand the deepest things about mystery? Filling our eyes with video games and our ears with ipods might leave us poorer than we can possibly imagine.

After my mother died, seeing dad so forlorn, I asked her for a sign. Since the day was rainy and warm, and mom knew I like cold and snow, I asked to see snow. The following morning, on a cold and sunny day, the snow fell in Old Wethersfield Connecticut from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m.

Why did I tell you this? Do I think the dead control the weather?

No, I tell you this so we wake up to the truth that life is governed by mystery and not by meteorologists, and the mystery is of a loving God, and God’s loving involvement with us. History shows over and over again that our own interpretation of each other, and of the world, leads to disasters and wars and poverty. Rather than locking ourselves into stunted interpretations of people and life, and then to acting on them in such a way that we generate wars, sickness, ignorance and poverty – we should learn to be coherent servants of mystery. God’s idea of us, of who we are and what we are capable of, in short God’s dream for us, gives life, life fully and life unto eternity.

I complained to God, in my own prayers, that even though mom had 8 wonderful months (neither her disease nor the toxic treatments, nor the knowledge of her disease ever moved her away from her confident and peaceful demeanor). I complained that her last 3 weeks were too tough and not fair. And in my prayer I heard a response. Did I want to cheat mom of her victory? I was given to understand that the last agony represents all the agonies of a lifetime – every struggle to work, to raise us, to get us through school. Every battle she fought against sickness in of any one of us, against our own adolescent rejection of principles she was trying to instill – all of the struggles of her life were present in this last struggle, for her own salvation, and to show us, to show God, and to show herself what she was really made of. The fruit of this last agony is to victoriously break away from this life and into God’s splendor. No, I could never want to cheat mom from this victory.

My mother and father taught us all to live our lives as good and generous people. They weren’t perfect. Just like us they were half clay and half God-breath. They didn’t always get it right the first time. Mom had a problem that took her nearly 20 years to conquer. But she did. It is not our individual acts that show us who were are, but the long trajectory, the trail of light that we leave behind. Mom and dad taught us to be joyful, to be strong, to work hard, to stick together, and to seek God and trust Him. Dad taught us how to be faithful, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to the very end. Mom taught us how to face sickness and death with courage, faith and dignity.

Finally, mom also told me that she was so blessed never to have had to face the nightmare of every parent, the death of one of her own children. In fact, most of us are well the age of grandparents. So, she said to me, that now God will give her the chance to be a mother twice. She brought us into this world and she will do everything in her power to bring us into the next.

And so, there she went. Deeper & deeper into darkness, seeing the more and brighter stars that only total darkness can reveal, until one star gets bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter and raises in front of her with full beckon. Dawn. Coming home. Returning to the mystery out of which she came, 79 years ago. Birth and death-, the bookends of life, the portals of mystery, which mark the span of our years.

Yes, please do share our sadness. But don’t miss the chance to also share our joy. Let us together praise and thank God our maker, Christ our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit who consoles us, who have claimed Gerri as fully their own, and yet still more ours than ever before.

5 thoughts on “Eulogy for Gerri Frechette

  1. I am a pediatrician who works with several doctors and nurses who recently volunteered in your children’s hospital. I would like to volunteer to work in your pediatric wards or anywhere else you need a medical professional of my training. I could come for one or two weeks in March please reply with any information on how I could assist in your hospital. Jennifer Williams

  2. Dear Father Rick- Thank you for sharing your loss in such a loving and thought-provoking way. I wish I had enjoyed a better relationship with my Mother during her life. Now that she is gone, (cancer) I find that I am at peace with our old hurts, through the intercession of Jesus and His holy Mother.

    One day, I was sitting on a dock with my feet dangling in the water. I was thinking of all the times I sat on a dock fishing with my Mom at the cottage her father built in Michigan. I felt a tiny touch on my foot, and I looked down. There was a little turtle resting on my toes.

    I said, “Hi, Mom.”

    Oh, yes, there are mysteries in life. God bless you in your most necessary work. Stay strong in the Lord, and don’t forget to take care of yourself. You are needed.

    Your sister in Christ, Beth

  3. Darryl Tanennbaum, MD
    Journal – Orthopedic Surgeon Columbus, Indiana
    Haiti Feb 27 – March 7 2010

    We left for the airport with some reservations. We knew that we were doing the right thing. What other choice was there? I am an orthopedic surgeon and this was the biggest orthopedic disaster that anyone could imagine. Our flight to PAP was not long from Miami. On our approach to PAP, we saw some of the destruction from the sky but what was most impressive were the naval ships at sea, including the USS Comfort. It was massive, white in color with multiple red crosses on its hull and decks. We landed and were told by Bob Caudle that we should look for a dwarf or a one armed man named Jackson and that they could help us get to St. Damien Hospital. Once we cleared customs, we came upon a gate with several hundred Haitian man standing there offering to get us a taxi to our final destination. We each had a back pack, a carry on bag and 2 suitcases with medical supplies weighing over 50 lbs each. We couldn’t find either the dwarf nor any one arm man and after about 20 minutes of looking, we started to think of alternatives. Jen very quietly looked at Andy B and said ”that man has one arm”. Andy approached him and asked if he was Jackson. He said “Everybody knows Jackson….Of course I am Jackson.”. We loaded all of our belongings into the truck with Jackson sitting on Andy’s lap. Jackson was completely drunk and was sound asleep within 5 minutes and our driver spoke no English at all. Somehow, we stumbled upon the 82nd Airborne Battalion Compound and the soldiers wielding machine guns stopped our driver. We had no map but did know that the hospital was near the US Embassy. They gave us directions and we made it to St Damien’s. Our team was Andy Day, anesthesiologist, his wife Jennifer, a nurse, and Andy Bulla, PA that I work with. That night we met the rest of our group. Bob Caudle is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon from Raleigh, NC, and was my contact person that led us to this opportunity. April is a scrub RN from NC. We joined up with a team from Montana that included 1 MD, 1 PA, 2 PTs, 2 Nurses, and a sales rep who became Team Gofer. There was another orthopod from Bloomington and an excellent OT as well. We had the makings of a great team.

    Monday began with a mass by Father Rick and Father Scott at 7 am. I’ve only been to one Catholic Mass and was not real impressed. The sermon by Father Rick however had a gift and was a tremendous speaker. This morning was a funeral for 5 children that had been dug out from a school that had collapsed and killed all 200 inside. Apparently, everyday bodies are brought to the hospital from this site. There was not a dry eye in the small chapel. Many of the stained glass artwork was broken and rubble was everywhere; however, Father Rick preached Hope and I felt good after the sermon. We were off to a doctor’s meeting after the service and then on to the day. Much of the team started in the Clinic where I was told they saw about 80 patients. It was 80 – 95 degrees. I went off to surgery to operate on forearm fracture that occurred during the earthquake and never healed and to operate on a lady who had a femoral head fracture dislocation with an acetabular fracture. Minouche Civil is a 22 you female L hand dominant woman with a nonunion of the BBFA variety. It was shortened and atrophic and significantly deformed. Andy Day performed a scale block and I was nervous about surgery for the first time in many years. Our OR was about 12 by 18 feet and had a pole in the middle. There was no anesthetic machine, boxes were everywhere, and the bovie did not always work. We had some plates and screws and thought we could cut the large screws into small ones if need be. We had the only functioning C Arm in PAP. The room was about 90 degrees and there was only a fan. The surgery went surprisingly well and I felt like we really helped this woman. She went from having a useless arm to one that should heal if she doesn’t get an infection. The next case was a 39 yo lady named Rosamay Sylvestre with a femoral head fracture and posteriorly dislocated hip since the earthquake. She has been lying in bed for 6 weeks on her belly and was really depressed. A Brazilian surgeon operated on her a few weeks back but she remained dislocated. Andy Day brought a home made anesthetic machine and he did probably the first and only General Anesthetic in this hospital. They were only using Ketamine and local prior to this. The surgery went well and I used an Austin Moore prosthesis and took what was left of the femoral head and turned it into a posterior wall. We lost blood and her Hgb was 10 preop. In Haiti there was none available for transfusion. I injected everyone with marcaine with epi to try and decrease blood loss. Somehow, she was 7.8 postop and seemed OK. Finished about 7:30 that night. The girls in the OR worked real hard. They scrubbed, circulated, cleaned all instruments, cleaned the room, and sterilized everything. I tried to help as did everyone. It was real team effort. Made it back to the guest house for freeze dried beef stew….it tasted great. The OR was so hot that we had to drink 4 bottles of water after the case. Hands were water logged in gloves and scrubs soaking wet. Andy Bulla and I stayed in his tent on the roof of the guest house. It was concrete but everyone slept there in case of another earthquake…people felt safest on the rooftop so that we wouldn’t be crushed. The first night we didn’t sleep more than 30 minutes without waking up hurting somewhere. This night we found some warm Colt 45 beer, the can of which described it as America’s Beer. I slept a little better and sat in the tent for a long time thinking that this may have been the most gratifying day I have ever had in the OR. It took all day in our little, humid, sweating OR, but we truly changed the lives of 2 horribly unfortunate people. I felt better about this than any surgery I have ever done before. At home, there is always some one who can do what I do, but in Haiti there aren’t. I really missed my family as there were no phones, but I knew that they understood and encouraged me to go to Haiti.

    Tuesday began like the day before with another funeral and a mass. This funeral was a little different in that it was a middle aged woman who died of “a broken heart”. Her family was killed in the earthquake…her parents, husband, and all children. She was in a tent and overcome with grief. Father Rick carried the entire funeral in Krayol for her friends and it was tough to hear about her losses. I was in the ortho clinic today and we saw about 75 patients. There were at least 8 kids in spica casts that we took off and watched them take their first steps since the quake. I saw many Ex-fixes, some healing some not. The malunion/nonunions are the hardest to fix. I think about 50% look to be in satisfactory alignment and may heal, the others will need surgery. Learned today that they think 300,000 people died, 20,000 had major ortho injuries of which there are 4,000 lower extremity amputations and 1,000 upper extremity amputations. I had to walk down the hallway to look at X-rays. This walk was emotionally very difficult. St. Damien’s is primarily a children’s hospital that is continuing to take care of kids in addition to the massive adult trauma. I saw hundreds of people waiting all day to be seen. There were screaming babies, mothers nursing, people on stretchers and in wheelchairs with fixators, and many sad, emotionless faces looking at me in my scrubs. It was hard to walk by with my health without feeling horrible at times, guilty for the incredible life that I have. There was an ER filled with really sick babies that were dehydrated and septic. I’m sure babies died there everyday. I did see some happy kids that day and their faces are what really kept me going. During the clinic, there was an aftershock that we later learned was 4.5 on the Richter scale. The Haitians were freaked out and ran into the courtyard of the hospital screaming. They are many of them that have houses that are still standing but they will still sleep in tents at night because of their fear of another quake. We had another satisfying day and hoped that we would sleep better that night. Unfortunately, a dieing dog barked all night. He kept us up that night but we never heard him again.

    By Wednesday we were all in a groove. Our work was very rewarding and we were at what was probably the best hospital in PAP for what we were doing. We found out that the US Government had 2 complete OR facilities near the airport. They had not done a single surgery in them. One of the guys went there looking for a bovie as ours did not work and he heard how the army surgeons were just standing around doing nothing. They were keeping one of the ORs there just in case and the other they were going to ship back to the states. Later in the week, a congressional group flew to Haiti for 5 hours of pictures. They were supposed to come to our hospital at which time we were going to make a plea for the supplies in that OR, but they cancelled the trip for more photo ops with the Haitian government. They flew all the way to Haiti for 5 hours!!!! Nevertheless, I split my day between the clinic and the OR. I operated on a young Haitian with a femoral neck nonunion and did an Austen Moore with a Haitian orthopedist, Dr. Philip. He had seen one these about 12 years ago in Belgium, but had never done one. It was fun showing him how to do one….he was going to see this person in follow-up at one the adult hospitals, St Camille. Went to the US Embassy today and met 2 members of US Special Operations Forces. They picked up one of the young helpers from the clinic and took him in a Humvee to get pizza and beer for us after a long day. That night we had pizza and beer at “Father Ricks’s Café Disco”. It was great way to blow off steam and hang out on our newly named concrete home. We gave the above name to the rooftop and everyone at the guest house started using it. Andy Day and Patick played the guitar while many sang along and had Cuban cigars.

    The days continued to fly by. Thursday was a clinic day and removal of a few external fixators. We would take the fixators off for 48 hours, give antibiotics, and then rod the nonunions. We went to the rehab center and saw the Italians making prostheses for the patients. They were able to do this in less than 24 hours. Some of the kids I sent over on Tuesday were learning how to walk on Thursday….it was really neat. The team from Montana all had gotten really sick so we tried to get a good night sleep tonight. Unfortunately, there was a torrential rainfall and it soaked our tent. Andy and I had to rearrange everything in the middle of the night when our pillows became soaked and our faces wet with Haitian floodwater. There were showers available but the water just dripped out of the shower head. It was cold and really more of a wash cloth shower. The water was ”filtered” in some places but I often treated anything not bottled with iodine tablets. Had a lot of post op work to take care of today. The nurses and patients only spoke Krayol and we wrote our orders in English…hmmm. There were translators that helped but the floor work was slow going.

    Friday was once again a very busy day. We did 6 cases. I did another hip on a young person that broke when he jumped from the first floor out of the window as the building collapsed. He is 32 yo and needs to support his family. This will change his life…if he doesn’t get an infection. Surprisingly, with all the dirt and despair, all of the Haitians are very clean and have excellent hygiene. They looked cleaner than me by the end of the week. The pharmacist at Andy’s clinic sleeps under sheets and a tarp but is always perfectly dressed and looks as though she has had a great shower. The ex fix pin sites all look really good despite minimal pin care. Did a subtrochanteric nonunion with Bob Caudle. It went really well using the SIGN nail that is being used throughout 3rd world countries. Went for a ride with Special Ops guys around city and had farewell party at Café Disco. We met people from Italy, Spain, Germany, and other parts of US. It was really fun and made you feel really good to be in Haiti.

    Saturday began with saying our goodbyes and a trip to the water front and Palace. The downtown area was hit particularly hard and every third building was flattened like a pancake. There was rubble everywhere. People filled the streets and tent cities were massive. Cars drove in all directions without any apparent order or street rules. Garbage was everywhere and pigs, dogs, and rats the size of dogs wandered the garbage piles. The Palace was twice the size of the White House and was devastated. The fence and surrounding lawns were pristine but the central dome was crushed. We could not get out of the car without being surrounded by children asking for food….food that we did not have. It was incredibly sad and we went to the airport. We cleared customs and waited for our plane. We spoke with other groups about their experiences. I felt we really helped a lot of people but left with extreme feelings of guilt for all that I have and the inequality of all the poverty that I was leaving behind. I think I am beginning to understand how people like Father Rick devote their lives to helping these people and I am looking forward to another trip like this. I was filled with sadness and tears as we took off from PAP toward Miami. Haiti is a tough place to be but the Haitian people are some of the kindest, warmest people you could hope to meet and care for and I feel sure I will be back.

  4. I am a hand therapist from Minneapolis. Looking for information about OT role there. I would really like to talk to the OT from your group. My surgeon is going in April an I would like to help too please post a reply

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