No Human Is Illegal: Part II

Previously I introduced you to Leticia, Jose, & Roberto. Now, I would like you to meet another amazing family.

Maria, Raul, and Joshua:

I don’t remember the first time I met Joshua and his parents, Maria and Raul (names changed). But the first time I met them as “their” Social Worker was sometime between Joshua’s second and third open-heart surgery. He was about 18 months old. My co-worker who had been following them was on vacation and I was covering all her patients. Joshua had pneumonia and was not doing well. He was in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU). As always, Maria was there around the clock and Raul was there every second he wasn’t working. They were two of the most devoted parents I had ever met in my years as a Social Worker.

During this admission I spent a lot of time with Joshua and his parents. As I’ve mentioned, I spoke mediocre Spanish. It was adequate for daily check-ins at the bedside, but I always used an interpreter for more complex conversations or whenever anything that needed a medical explanation was being discussed. But in these more casual conversations I always spoke Spanish. And so did his parents. Often with families like Joshua’s I would speak Spanish and the parents would try their best at English, each of us hoping to improve our language skills a bit. However, I remember Maria saying to me, “Si hablamos Inglés contigo, sólo ayuda a nosotros. Pero, si hablamos en Espanol contigo, podemos ayudar a todas las familias como nosotros que tύ ayudas. Y por eso, vamos a hablar sólo en Espanol.” (Translation: If we speak English with you, then that only helps us. But if we speak Spanish with you that helps all the families like us that you help. So, because of this we will only speak Spanish.”) This statement defined Maria and Raul. They were selfless and caring and they saw helping me improve my Spanish as a way to help all the immigrant families I would encounter.

Raul and Maria had come to the United States from Honduras when they were teenagers. (They were now in their early 20s). Their parents had saved money so that Maria and Raul could escape together. Their parents were friends, Maria and Raul were each only children. Their parents gave everything they had to save their only children. Their parents knew they had a grandson in Joshua, and they wrote to each other often, but they knew it was very unlikely they would ever meet Joshua.

Joshua would eventually recover from the illness that put him in the hospital when I first officially met him and his parents, but it was clear that his body was not healing as well as hoped from his last surgery and he was highly susceptible to illness. (All kids with congenital heart disease (CHD) are, but Joshua even more so).

When Joshua’s primary Social Worker returned from vacation we decided that because of the relationship I had been able to build with Joshua’s family during this admission (largely due to my Spanish speaking ability) that I would remain their primary Social Worker.

Joshua was in and out of the hospital often between his second and third surgeries. Despite the amount of time Joshua spent in the hospital he was always such a joyful, playful boy. He had a thick head of long, jet black hair that visually added to his playful personality. Being in bed all the time while hospitalized one might expect that he often suffered from outrageous “bed head.” But I remember the pride Maria took in frequently combing Joshua’s hair, and it was clear that Joshua LOVED having his hair combed. It provided him much comfort.

When Joshua grew big enough to consider doing his third open-heart surgery it was a difficult decision. He wasn’t in optimal physical condition to endure such a surgery, but it was clear he was unlikely to get better without the surgery. So, together, his parents and the medical team decided to move forward with this third surgery.

His initial recovery was long and complicated, and during this time I grew to know Joshua’s parents even better. Yes, they were here illegally but Joshua was a US citizen and so they qualified for some welfare programs which I helped them apply for. They were always so grateful for every little thing I was able to help them with.

Eventually Joshua made a full recovery from his third surgery and he soon seemed to be thriving. They would come in for out-patient visits and like Roberto’s parents would ask for “Trabajadora Christina” during these visits. I always enjoyed seeing Joshua, Maria, and Raul when Joshua was feeling well. The relief and joy they were able to experience during these times was a joy to witness.

But Joshua’s good health did not last long. It has been many years since I cared for Joshua and his family and I do not remember all the details. But he developed a rare complication many months after his third surgery and soon began to deteriorate. Undoing this third surgery, and instead hoping for a heart transplant was considered, but Joshua did not give his parents or the medical team much time to consider this option. He soon grew too ill to allow for another surgery.

I remember a day when his parents were holding vigil by his bedside. They were eating a fruit I was unfamiliar with (or at least I thought I was). I asked what it was and they said “Quieres?” Do you want one? Sure, I said. Knowing that sharing food is often a sign of immense respect I never turned down an offering of food from my patients. It was a fruit about the size of a plum. It was sweet and delicious and had a small seed inside. I asked what it was and they said, “Ubas!” Or at least that’s what I thought they said, forgetting that in Spanish “v” is said like a “b.” Remember, my Spanish was mediocre, and I didn’t remember the word for grapes (uvas). They tried to explain, but how does one describe a grape. I mean, IT’S A GRAPE! It wasn’t until later that evening when I got home to my husband and asked him what “ubas” were that I learned they were saying “uvas” and they were grapes. They were the biggest and sweetest grapes I had EVER seen! We both laughed when I returned the next day and explained that yes, now I understood what uvas were.

A few days after sharing uvas, Joshua grew even sicker. It was a weekend, my pager went off in the early morning hours when the medical team knew he was deteriorating and asked that I come in. Of course I did. His parents were so grateful to see me. In their time of immense sadness, knowing their son was dying, they were thanking me profusely for coming in on a weekend. They always seemed to be thinking of someone else.

I sat with them, we shared more uvas and we shared stories of Joshua. He was 2 years and 7 months at this time. Despite his physical limitations from his heart condition he’d still managed to get into trouble at home like any toddler, and his parents loved sharing these stories with me, his Cardiologist whom they adored (and who adored them) and other staff members.

Joshua died later that day. Again, I was in the room with Maria and Raul, and with his cardiologist, when he passed. They had asked that their “hospital family” stay. So, we did. Maria sobbed quiet, deep sobs and combed Joshua’s hair throughout the last hours of his life. She and Raul took turns holding him. Raul, a quiet, gentle, emotional man sobbed too. He was saying goodbye to his son and it was too much for this man who had always tried to stay so strong for Maria and Joshua.

I helped them find the funds to pay for Joshua’s cremation. They knew they may one day have to leave this Country and leaving Joshua behind was too much for them to contemplate. It wasn’t an option. So, despite them believing it was against their religion (despite the fact that I had a Spanish speaking priest call and tell them it was not) they cremated their son. They held a simple memorial service and asked that I sit up front with them at this service.

A few weeks after Joshua’s service Maria and Raul came to the hospital. I got a call from the front desk saying they were there to visit me. It was too much for them to come up to the Cardiology floor where I worked, and where Joshua died, so I went to meet them. They came to this place that held so many painful memories to say “thank you” to me. They brought me a picture of Joshua, a thank you note, and some uvas. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Anytime a parent found it inside them to thank me for helping them during the most awful time of their life I was always brought to my knees in gratitude for this amazing job I had the privilege of doing, and the amazing families I got to work with.

They did this every month or so. They came to the hospital, we sat in the lobby, shared memories of Joshua, and ate uvas.

At one point many months had passed and I hadn’t seen Maria and Raul, when one day I received a call from the emergency room. It was Maria. She was sobbing. “Mi nino! Es en la emergencia. Ayudame!” (Translation: My son! He’s in the emergency room. Help me!) I was confused. I knew this was Maria, but she was talking about her son. I was panicked she was having a mental health crisis. I went to the emergency department and found Maria, Raul, and…Diego, their 5 week old. Maria got pregnant about 7 months after Joshua died. They had told NO ONE because they were terrified this baby would die too. And now they thought that fear was coming true. Diego had been projectile vomiting for the past day. They brought him to the emergency room not knowing what to do. The doctors found he had pyloric stenosis, a condition in which the pylorus muscle prevents food from entering the small intestine. It is easily repaired with a minor surgery. But of course, Maria and Raul were terrified. Diego went into surgery later that day and he did well. He went home perfectly healthy a few days later.

I saw Diego and his parents again one more time. At this point I myself was pregnant and his parents knew I would be going on maternity leave. My plan was to come back to work part time after having my son. Despite having the full support of the Cardiology department (which I am to this day forever grateful for) the Social Work department did not support part time positions and I was not able to return to work. I was told since I no longer worked there that I could not reach out to these families. I have never seen Maria, Raul, or Diego again and I think about them often. Especially since November 8th I have been thinking of them…a lot. They have two sons who are American citizens. One died and their only memories of him are here. One is very much alive, and I hope thriving here. I hope with every ounce of my being that they remain here for many decades to come.

When we think about “illegal” immigrants, we have to remember: They don’t come here through terrifying, arduous journeys because it’s the easy way out, or because they are too lazy to do it the “legal” way. And they don’t do it because they want to come here and mooch off of our social services. No, they do it because they fear for their lives and they see no other way out. The legal avenues take years and are difficult to access. When faced with a crisis, they do what they have to do to get to safety. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people just like you and me. They just happen to have been very unlucky and were born in dangerous countries, in which their basic needs aren’t met and their lives are at risk. Why should we turn our backs on people living here, contributing to our economy, living peacefully, who want nothing more than to have the chance to thrive, just like you and me?

I guess I see myself as much more of a citizen of the world than of the United States, and I don’t think we should turn our backs on people like Maria and Raul, or Leticia & Jose. And I am glad I was born in the United States so I am able to fight for the rights and privileges that we have to be opened up to more people.

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