Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemalan mother credits surviving TB to Eastern Washington Catholics

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 2, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Juan Cojon, Father David Baronti, and Irma Cojon at the convent of Sisters Immaculata Burke and Marie Tolle in Novillero, Guatemala. Father Baronti arranged for Irma’s operation for tuberculosis of the spine in Guatemala City. Irma is in the process of recovering but already has the ability to walk and care for her children. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

The knock on Father David Baronti’s door was one he always dreaded to hear. Another of his numerous parishioners was dying, and her husband had come, asking Father Baronti to bring her the Last Rites.

Ministering to the dying, whose homes were deep in the mountains of Northern Guatemala, was always an emotional challenge for Father Baronti. His parishioners were too poor to afford much in the way of medical care. And family ties were always strong. So when one person was in pain, all shared in that suffering.

Juan Cojon’s plea was especially saddening because his wife, Irma, was the young mother of their three children. Juan had known her since she was a young girl selling tortillas in the market.

Following their marriage, she had been a vibrant, articulate, and enthusiastic member of Father Baronti’s Parish – a catechist whose faith was a model for other young women.

How could this tragedy have happened to such a healthy-looking Mayan Indian woman?

Many months earlier, Irma had suffered a fall. It didn’t appear to be life-threatening, but since that time her condition had deteriorated. She had been in constant pain and unable to sleep. Paralysis had begun in her legs and was inching toward her upper body. With no hope of recovery, Juan sought out Father Baronti for the last sacraments.

When Father Baronti saw Irma’s condition, he immediately drove her to a hospital in Quetzaltenango, a village about 40 miles away. A doctor ultimately determined that she had tuberculosis of the spine. She was given some care and released.

Discharge from the Quetzaltenango hospital didn’t mean that Irma was on a track for recovery, however. The pain and paralysis intensified, prompting Father Baronti to take Irma to a larger hospital in Guatemala City. There, he located a Guatemalan surgeon who said he could operate on Irma – an operation that would be deemed questionable here in the United States.

But the hospital would not schedule an operation without the assurance of funds to pay for it – funds Father Baronit did not have. Irma would have to leave the hospital unless her pastor came up with some money to pay for room charges, and soon.

During the next few days, Irma’s condition worsened; she lost her ability to walk. The paralysis that started in her legs spread into her upper body and she could not move. The pain became more intense, and she felt as though she were suffocating.

Irma’s naturally positive nature gave way to the reality of her physical condition, which she accepted gracefully. She told Father Baronti that she was ready to die, and prayed, “God, I am ready for you to take me.” Then she added, “But God, what about my children? They need me.”

Meanwhile, Father Baronti was in contact with his support group in Spokane. This wasn’t the first crisis he had encountered, for he had battled against the odds of accepted Guatemalan probability many times before. He also had great faith.

With some assistance from the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission, notices quickly appeared in the Sunday Bulletins of St. Augustine and St. Thomas More parishes in Spokane. They sought donations to cover the $2,000 cost of an operation for “a young woman who would soon die of TB” if she didn’t have the procedure.

Thirteen Spokane parishioners responded with checks ranging from $10 to $500. The $2,810 donated would be enough for the operation plus the needed post-operative medicine, if the operation was a success.

Irma’s outlook brightened with the prospect of an operation. It took place on July 5 in Guatemala City. On July 7, Father Baronti sent an e-mail:

“I am writing to tell that I just came from Roosevelt Hospital to visit Irma. Two days after her six-hour surgery she is resting in the Observation Section of the hospital, having been moved from ICU yesterday. She is connected to various monitoring devices, but everything is normal. She looks like an angel. Thank you for your prayers and your help.”

Following the surgery, Irma’s condition continued to improve to the point where she could again walk and – importantly for her –care for her children. In November, she and her husband, Juan, accompanied Father Baronti to Novillero, where they had dinner with Sisters Immaculata Burke and Marie Tolle, and visitors representing Spokane.

At the dinner, Irma and Juan thanked God for Irma’s life and thanked their pastor for the faith and support he extended to her. Irma had struggled with pain and paralysis; she was ready to give up. But something had restored her will to survive.

When asked what had helped her turn that corner, Irma responded that it was the many people from Spokane who cared enough to provide the money for her operation. Those people of God, who didn’t even know her, had given her the inspiration to keep up the struggle so that she could recover and continue to take care of her cherished children.

Irma’s children, Astrid, Miguel, and Alejandra, will also be thankful for her presence in the years to come.

(Jerry Monks is a member of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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