Jon Darsee shares his reflections on Mother Teresa, who he met in 1984 while working for a cardiac device company. She died on September 5th, 1997, at age 87. Pope Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for sainthood on December 17th, 2015. The canonization Mass was held by Pope Francis on September 4th, 2016 in Vatican City.
“Hello again, Sister,” I shouted over the static, “I arrive in Calcutta (Kolkata) the day after tomorrow, and I wanted to check in with you to make sure you have received the monitoring equipment.”
“Oh yes, thank you,” she said humbly. “We received two boxes in the post yesterday. We are grateful for your generosity to Mother Teresa.”
It was 1997, and I was the Director of International Sales for Instromedix, a pioneer in cardiac telemedicine, best known for creating the King of Hearts looping event monitor. The company’s bread and butter came from selling transtelephonic pacemaker monitoring equipment to hospitals and manufacturers, who provided the lunchbox-like device to patients. Mother Teresa had a pacemaker, but routine transtelephonic checks were only a standard of care in the United States. The Instromedix monitoring system had the potential to be a lifesaver to the globetrotting head of the worldwide Missionaries of Charity, and I’d been trying to arrange this meeting for nearly a year.
“God bless you,” the nun said, sparking memories from 13 years earlier, when at the urging of a Buddhist monk, I traveled to Kolkata in hopes of meeting the venerable, 74-year-old Nobel Prize winner.
I remember the middle-aged nun with a thick Hindu accent who answered our knock. She studied us, two 25-year-olds, with a look that asked whether we were wasting her time. She grilled us on who we were and why we wanted to meet “Mother,” before declaring that Mother Teresa wasn’t there. She suggested trying Nirmal Hriday (formerly known as the Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes). We thanked her and jumped back into our cab.
The entrance to Nirmal Hriday led down several steps into a large ward, lit mostly by natural light seeping in through high windows. It was clean, orderly, and quiet. We stood amidst cots placed side by side like in a field hospital. Every bed was taken. I watched a tall, Nordic-looking man changing bedding and then gingerly lifting people — who were mostly skin and bones — from one cot to another. I tried to make eye contact, but his focus never wavered. On his face was a look of grim determination. The faces of the dying haunted me.
Although the nuns didn’t seem to mind us being there, we stood out like sore thumbs in bright, clean clothes and healthy countenances. Why were we standing in the middle of that room, if not to roll up our sleeves and help? After several distressed minutes feeling like some kind of morbid tourist, a nun approached. She cheerfully ran through the same battery of questions before making a phone call and reporting that Mother was at headquarters. “We just came from there,” I said. The nun shrugged as if to say, “She always keeps moving.” My relief to reach the street was short lived when, turning to my right, I spotted a nun patiently ladling drinking water from a bucket to what appeared to be countless others lying adjacent to the building. We rode back to Mother House in silence. As our cab jockeyed through Kolkata’s chaotic human kaleidoscope, I could not shake the specter of death.
At the Mother House, another nun again grilled us. After a brief delay, she returned to say Mother was conducting a meeting, but if we could wait, she would see us. Elated, we stepped forward through a hallway, only to be shocked when the nun ushered us through a door not to the waiting area but directly into the meeting, where Mother Teresa sat with her guests. She didn’t look up. The sister pointed to a wooden bench against the far wall. The room was large, with high ceilings. Painted in a two-tone subdued blue/gray, it was clean to clinical precision and barren of anything besides our bench, a few chairs, and the oversized wooden desk that nearly swallowed Mother up when she sat behind it. A simple wooden cross hung on one wall while a large picture of Jesus hung on another.
There we sat, across the room from this iconic figure. The meeting was conducted in English and impossible not to overhear. Surgeons from Mumbai accompanied by family members were making a donation to establish a clinic for kids with congenital eye defects. One minute I felt the butterflies of excitement; the next, my enthusiasm drowned in the haunting images I’d seen of the dying. Looking at the starstruck faces meeting Mother Teresa, I felt like I was in the presence of a rock star or head of state, yet the room’s stark simplicity drilled home the sister’s arduous mission and strict vow of poverty. Quietly sitting on the bench while trying not to stare, I suddenly heard a beautiful voice singing. For a second I thought I’d gone mad until others joined in, like a choir practice on the floor above us.
After taking photos with the doctor’s families in which she appeared shy if not uncomfortable, Mother Teresa approached. She was barefoot and could not have been taller than 4’ 10”. She was dressed in her signature white with blue trim sari. Looking up at me she asked, “How can I help you?” Her charisma took me by surprise. “I should be asking how I can help you,” I thought. I’d been rehearsing this moment for two months, yet face-to-face, I couldn’t find any words. Not knowing what else to do, I bent down and touched her feet, mimicking the sign of reverence I’d watched the Indian families do as they departed. Trying her best to stop me, she laughed, saying “No, no. You don’t need to do that.” She then patiently asked several questions about us before pointing toward the singing and saying with a kind smile, “I have to join the sisters.”
With that, she was gone. I’d looked into her eyes, hoping for some sign of approval. But I was left with just the emotions spinning inside me. I couldn’t help but compare her 74 years of sacrifice and service with my 25 years of, well, none. Of all the feelings I could have left with, I departed Lower Circular Road overwhelmed by a sense of selfishness.
As my flight hit the ground in Kolkata, I replayed my meeting with Mother Teresa in 1984 for the hundredth time. I arrived at the hotel well after midnight, but couldn’t sleep. Knowing their day began at 4:30 am, I rang the Mother House at seven. I could hardly contain my excitement. When the sister came to the phone, my “Hello there, sister!” was more salute than salutation. For a second, she said nothing. But then, her first words hit me like a punch to the gut: “I’m very sorry, but you will not be able to see Mother Teresa. She is very sick and in the hospital.”
“I’m so sorry,” I heard myself say, trying to hide my shock and disappointment. “Should we reschedule? I’ll be in India for the next week.”
“I’m sorry. She’s very sick.”
“Shouldn’t I come and train you on the equipment?” I stammered.
“That will not be possible. The sisters are going into seclusion to pray for Mother. Please call Dr. Bardhan. He’s expecting you. God bless you.” I dropped the receiver and collapsed onto the bed.
My concern for Mother Teresa’s health took a back seat to my crushing disappointment. I’d played out the retelling of this story many times: the one demonstrating my determined compassion for this great woman; my ingenuity and privilege even meeting her for a second time. I knew I should be as selfless as the example she set, but I wrestled with my letdown all morning.
I rang Dr. A. K. Bardhan, the personal cardiologist to Mother Teresa, shortly before noon and was surprised when he invited me to lunch at his home. What initially felt like a sad substitution turned into a great honor. I’d been to India on business three times before, and he was the first cardiologist who invited me into his home. Even though he was clearly distraught — he shared that she was in heart failure, breathing with the help of a ventilator, and had bouts of delirium — this man’s only concern seemed to be for my disappointment. He shared several stories, doing everything he could to make me feel as if I were in her presence by proxy. He listened patiently as I trained him to use the Instromedix transmitter and receiving equipment, although I got the distinct impression he didn’t think she would have the opportunity to benefit.
Mother Teresa died a few months later at the age of 87. Although I didn’t get to meet her again, teach her to use the remote monitoring system and bask in the adulation of a deed well done, I did come to the realization that it is better to focus on the intent to do good than on its outcome. Lines from the oft-quoted spiritual poem come to mind: “I received nothing I wanted, but everything I needed.”
An occasional contributor to EP Lab Digest, Jon Darsee is the Executive Vice President - Health Policy and Payer Relations for iRhythm Technologies, Inc., a healthcare information services provider and creator of the ZIO Patch and the ZIO Service.