Anybody could say they can take on the world because nothing and no one could stop them in their mission to help out others. Not even slow them down. Death hit hard on Maritza and Franklin, suddenly taking away their 16 year old son in 1995 and 3 months later took away their 2 year old daughter after a devastating cancer. One could think that their life is over, that pain would overwhelm them; on the contrary it was all this that pushed them towards a new direction. Almost like obstacle running, dodging them while new ones appear, they firmly continue their path, after a temporary cancer and a macular degeneration on Franklin that made him loose his sight completely; they take things with humor and fight them with love. They enjoy the 3 children they still have; making most of the time they have together and dedicating themselves to help the sick people with low income in their community.
It is amazing how the path is being shown to us as if Someone was taking us by the hand; as well as pointing to us something special. A “coincidence” took us to our heroine, while we were waiting for a long time in front of the house of someone we were going to interview, a neighbour told us about Maritza, saying we couldn’t leave without meeting her. There we went, she opened the door of her house immediately before even understanding what we were doing there, and just a minutes later she had already opened her heart while we sat in her garage floating on the typical and extremely comfortable rocking ‘ticas’ (costarrican) made out of intertwined rubber thread.
Maritza and Franklin have always lived in Liberia, north of Costa Rica. She was left orphan when she was very little, which developed a special capacity in her to find and assist those who are alone and need help. They have been together since they were very young, being Franklin 10 years older than her; a handsome man, whose simplicity and happiness are felt through his glance and pacific smile. Sharing a profession, they have raised 5 children; he is a regular teacher and she is a teacher of kids with special needs. She is a whirlwind; she does everything, and faces everything with a tireless courage but also with sweet warmth, complementing herself with her loyal partner who doesn’t leave her side at all.
Remembering the pain for her daughter’s death, Maritza admits to us: “I felt that God was telling me: ‘Experience it yourself so you may be able to help others’. I have received so much support from other people during that time, that I could understand the importance of having company and support. We had to go through a very hard experience, it was tough; but these are God’s plans, He already knows the day and the hour. My son with his 16 years being fully lived, had accomplished all his projects; and the little one was a gift from Heaven, so we could enjoy her; she was an angel that God gave us so we could see heaven for a little while. Naturally, with so much pain we grew up emotionally, spiritually, as a couple and as a family.” Even though those were hard moments of deep suffering, their hope and dedication to others were much bigger, trusting that they are up in heaven waiting for them. At that time, retired from their professions, 42 and 52 years old, they started to search for people with terminal sicknesses that couldn’t afford the corresponding expenses, also helping the families with the special care and handling as they already knew what a patient with cancer requires. Even if it was just a small help, they would bring them cushions, change the mattresses, and support them spiritually and emotionally. They got a young doctor who had arrived in Liberia with a lot of enthusiasm, who loved his profession and agreed to dedicate 2 hours daily to their cause; this meant they started to move forward in big steps and they got organized and created the ‘Asociación Pro Clínica del Dolor y Cuidados Paliativos Chorotega’ (Association Pro Clinic of Pain and Palliative Care Chorotega) joining groups of social action and volunteers. “People are very supportive here, it all started up here in my garage, we had beds, oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, etc. But soon it became too small, so we rented a house with the help of donations that we receive. We also capture some resources from the government which contributes to the Association.”
What started as an spontaneous help to patients with cancer with low income, has developed into a professional team who helps them with management and medical visits, providing medicine and diapers, lending orthopedics beds, cranes to lift up patients, wheelchairs, walking aids and oxygen tanks; apart from providing psychological and moral support to the patients, they guide them in the treatment of chronic pain and palliative cares. They developed systems to get benefactors to contribute on a monthly basis and organize raffles, clothes and food sales, whatever is necessary to collect money. Maritza herself goes to the universities promoting the ‘Diapers Campaign’ collecting donations from the students, making them involved in volunteer work with small contributions that later are changed into diapers. Everyone wins, sometimes we need to be called in to get involved, to be found and shown the hard reality only just to find a coin in our pocket.
We are facing again these people who dedicate their lives to give a dignified end to the life of so many people, as if someone was underlying to us this subject, calling for our attention. What had moved us in our previous article ‘Hands wide open’, today is being repeated with other faces and gets us close to the reality of so many patients in extreme situations. More often than not we have them close and we can’t see them! Like Maritza says to us: “If you don’t know your environment, don’t know your neighbours, don’t understand what is happening to them, or don’t reach out to give a hand; we don’t accomplish anything. Around here, in these neighbourhoods we are still a family, we know that the man next door suffers from Alzheimer and can be lost in the street. Without going much farther, we all have in our families an old person who is in a final state. One would wish that there were more people compromised, but it is a challenge…” Maritza recognizes that her weakness has always been people with terminal illnesses; she wanted to find them wherever they were to be able to help them with equipment and provide the coveted spiritual and psychological support to be able to go in peace.
Maritza faces everything with a smile and with humor asking Franklin –who is 71 years old and recently blind– to take a picture of the 3 of us; and they both laugh at it. “Only with faith you can face difficult situations in life, and dodge cheerfully the obstacles; because if you find the negative side to everything, it turns out impossible; but if you find the positive side, that helps, you have to see what you can rescue out of it. For us, we rescued a close family out of it. Pain brings you closer. Beside, my children need a sane mother, who smiles! I tell parents to enjoy their children, to stop fighting and trying to make them perfect. Everything has its balance, you have to learn to enjoy your children individually and different one from the other. People sometimes believe that it doesn’t hurt us, but the loss of a child, makes your smile go away with them, it is an unbelievable pain.”
At the beginning, they would knock every door, but also would go to the doctors and ask them for the addresses of patients with terminal illnesses: “So we would go to their houses to take care of the patient, as well as provide spiritual and emotional support to the whole family respecting their religious beliefs.” Today they do the same, but better organized. “The doctors inform us of patients with chronic pain, cancer, terminal illnesses of the kidney and cardio problems. We aim for the patient to have a good quality of life in the time that they have left. If the Government doesn’t cover the medicine, then the Association pays for it. The doctor tells us if the patient needs a bed, an oxygen tank, a mattress that avoids ulcers, walking aids, wheelchair or crane. It is lent to the family at no cost for the time they may need it with a contract, and programmed visits of a doctor and a nurse. If they don’t have enough people to care for the patients, then we send volunteers. At their house, we provide spiritual and emotional support, music therapy and console; we try to get the family to rest. When the patient passes away, they return the bed or whatever they have borrowed from us and so these things keep on rotating among other patients. For example, right now we have 100 things borrowed; everything has been purchased with donations, fund raising activities or special fund collections. I remember the first old lady suffering from cancer, had 7 children, all boys, who didn’t know how to care for her. Her cushions were old jeans filled and she was lying on a piece of wood, so I came back home running in search of some mattresses and cushions. We offered her company until she passed away, and this is how we saw the reality of the others surrounding us. We have accomplished a lot, and now we dream big, we want to purchase a clinic, with everything inside to be able to help so many that we cannot reach today.”
It is extremely easy to like Maritza and Franklin, both are so friendly and huggable that it is hard to leave them. We shared many meals with them, a Holy Rosary in community and 2 visits to patients with terminal illnesses. We could breathe in the air the peace that Maritza would bring into the houses. It is very tough to know that you have not long enough to live, but facing the reality knowing we can do something about it, make that final time a pleasant one and in peace towards a happy end, it is much more challenging, no matter how many obstacles appear in the middle of the road.
We asked many times to Maritza where does she take the strength to face all this and she laughs: “Just ask God everyday to give you strength, energy, wisdom and understanding to be able to comprehend everything that is happening to us.” Simple and straightforward, even with so many hard times in her life: That is FAITH. With that same conviction mixed with happiness is how they move the hearts in her community, helping silently the sick people.