|Dr. Chris Perez and Dr. Debbie Erickson|
Let me tell you about my friend, Dr. Debbie. I was immediately drawn to Debbie because she, like me, is a haole (Caucasian). We attended the same church where we were the ethnic minority. Debbie met her Chamorro husband, Chris, (Chamorro is the name for the native people of Guam) while they were both at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical School. Unlike many (most?) of us, Debbie willingly left the land where she was raised and moved with her husband to the other side of the world where she adapted to a culture not her own. When I moved to Guam, Debbie was one of the first people to befriend me and invite my family into her home. During the course of the four years I worked on Guam, Debbie and Chris were incredibly kind to our family. It didn’t take long for me to notice some marked cultural differences that were not easy for me to adjust to. When I asked Debbie how she handled these distinct cultural differences, she responded in an incredibly gracious way; her response was that she chose to give up her own system/comfort out of love for her husband and out of love for the people of Guam. Clearly, she held no resentment, even though in her characteristic honest way she acknowledged that not all the differences were easy for her.
My husband and I were working with Micronesian islanders from the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau who were attending Pacific Islands University on Guam. 90% of our students came from families of subsistence farmers/fishermen; they had no money to speak of and no health insurance. Despite unimaginable odds, these students were the cream of the crop and had miraculously managed to pass the TOEFL (English language proficiency exam) and the entrance exam into our accredited college. You know the saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch?” Sadly, our students suffered a lot of discrimination because of the misbehaviors/crimes of a few people of their same ethnicity living on Guam. One place where discrimination was prevalent was within the medical community. Dr. Debbie and Dr. Chris were very aware of the misbehavior/crimes of the few, but never did they confuse a bad apple for the bunch. They showed nothing but kindness and respect to these very marginalized people. They would even intervene and run interference on their behalf in an attempt to protect them from second-rate treatment. This was done on their own time and often on their own dime, and certainly with nothing in it for them--no praise, no acknowledgement—simply two people loving their neighbors as themselves.
When my family and I moved back to California, I continued to work full-time with Micronesian islanders, spending about one-third of my year on Guam, the FSM and Palau. Almost every time I was on Guam, Debbie and I would arrange to see one another. No matter how much time had passed, we would pick up as if no time had gone by. I distinctly remember the time we walked along the shore of the Philippine Sea, catching up on life. Through the grapevine, I had heard a story of some people who had hurt and wronged Debbie. I inquired, “How are the bad people doing?” I’ll never forget her gasp of surprise at my reference to them as “bad people.” Replying in her typical forthright, but gentle way, she replied, “Oh! I don’t think they are bad, just misled.” Although in no way did she intend to shame me, that is exactly what I felt: shame. Moreover, I felt amazed at someone living out the command to “Love your enemies and to do good to those who persecute you.”
On my trip to Guam in November 2014, I sat with Debbie as she received chemotherapy. To everyone’s shock, stage 4 colon cancer had been discovered. As an IV bag filled with a glowing yellow chemical elixir dripped into Debbie’s vein, we both spoke optimistically about the future, certain that this treatment would do the trick, and she’d be back on her feet in no time (or, at least, that was my thinking). On my return trip to Guam in February/March, I was so consumed with work that I didn’t meet up with Debbie. However, I took a photograph of a Micronesian toddler whose face was inflamed with red spots. Having little money, no medical insurance and being terrified of Guam doctors/hospital, no treatment had been sought for this helpless child. I knew I could email the photo to Debbie and I could count on her guidance to take steps in helping this precious little one. I also took a picture of one of our students whose arm had a nasty-looking mole—melanoma I wondered? “I’ll send this to Dr. Debbie when I get back to CA and get her take on it,” I told myself. Even if she couldn’t diagnose via the photograph, I knew she would find a way for this young adult to be treated. However, upon arriving back to the States, to my complete shock, I received word that Debbie was in the hospital with the possibility of being released on hospice.
Stunned. Sickened. Crushed. How could this be?! How could my kindred spirit, the friend I had pictured myself laughing with in our old age as we refreshed our feet in the tepid tropical waters of the Philippine Sea be THAT sick?! Who would advocate for the innocent and discriminated against islanders who needed medical attention? Who could we call when we had a suicidal student who desperately needed antidepressants but who had no health insurance and no ability to pay? My grief grew and was now not only for myself but for all the islanders who would lose one of their very, very few advocates. How could God take someone so desperately needed? Didn’t God understand that there is no one to replace her? As I write this, tears course down my cheeks. I have no answers to these questions. With all the jerks in the world, why couldn’t God take one of them?! And, then I hear Debbie’s shocked and forthright voice, “They’re not jerks, Karyn! They’re just misled.”
I do not understand why things have to be this way. As I have prayed and cried out to God about this, I have not received answers to my questions. I have, however, clearly sensed that God totally gets my pain--not just intellectually, but in a real visceral way. As a psychotherapist, when my clients are relaying to me stories of deep heartache and agony, even if I have not experienced that same kind of pain, because I understand the human psyche and how pain and loss are processed, my heart aches with my clients. How much more, the God who made me and fully understands how emotions and loss affect a person will have compassion and love for me. Matthew 26:38 says that the night before Jesus was betrayed he said, “My soul is EXCEEDINGLY SORROWFUL, EVEN TO DEATH!” Yeah, He understands deep agonizing pain. The Scripture goes on to say in verse 39 that He fell on his face and prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou will.”
I know that Jesus totally gets this kind of heart wrenching, physically agonizing emotional pain. Isaiah 53:3 even says that he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Somehow, the knowledge that He really does fully get what I’m going through brings me comfort. I guess because I also KNOW that He upholds me with His righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10) and that I am not alone but that He walks with me, “even through the valley of the shadow of death.” And, with His help, I want to go through this like He did when He asked that things be different, but ended His prayer with, “…nevertheless not as I will, but as thou will.”
Postscript: Months before Debbie was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, everyone was shocked when, out of nowhere, Chris was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. His cancer has been controlled with treatment, but has suddenly started a rapid decline. At this moment (3:15 p.m. PST) he lies in the hospital room next to Debbie. He expects to meet Jesus today and is lying with his running shoes on.....running to the end. He has a big smile on his face and states, "The victory has already been won."