It was a Saturday afternoon in September 1989, and I was home alone unpacking boxes when the phone rang. And a woman that I did not know started to interrogate me.
“Are you Dr. Lombardi?
Are you Dr. George Lombardi?
Are you an infectious disease specialist?
Did you live and work and do research in East Africa?
Are you considered to be an expert in tropical infections?
Would you consider yourself to be an expert in viral hemorrhagic fevers?”
At this point, I paused and I gathered myself, and I asked the obvious question, “Who are you?”
She introduced herself and said she was the representative of a world figure and a Nobel Laureate, someone who was suspected to have a viral hemorrhagic fever. And she was calling to ask if I would consult on the case.
Now, I found this highly improbable. I was 32 years old. I had just opened my office. The phone never rang. I had no patients. In fact, I remember staring at the phone trying to will it to ring. But, she persisted. And she mentioned that she had gotten my name from a colleague of mine who had told her to call Dr. Lombardi, he knows a lot about very weird things.
She arraigned a conference call. And in 10 minutes, I was transported through the telephone wires to a small hospital in Calcutta, India where I found out for the first time that the patient was Mother Teresa, and on the line were her two main Indian doctors.
We chatted and discuss the details of the case for about an hour. And though those details are now hazy to me, what came through the staticky wires was their deep abiding concern for their patient. These guys were worried. I wished them well as I got off the line and I went back to unpack some boxes.
She called an hour later. She said, “They were very impressed by what you had to say. And they’d like you to go to Calcutta. I’m making the arrangements. I can get you out tomorrow afternoon on the Concorde for the first leg.” I said, “This is impossible.” As I had just discovered, I just found my passport in one of these boxes. And I told her it had expired three months before. She said, “That’s a minor detail. Meet me in front of your building tomorrow morning, Sunday at 7:00 AM.”
Well, as you can probably surmise, I’m somebody who pretty much does what he’s told.
So 7:00 the next morning, she comes careening down the block in a wood paneled station wagon with bad shock absorbers. I jump in. The next stop is the passport office at Rockefeller Center, where on a Sunday morning, a state department official came, let us in, took my picture and handed me, in 15 minutes, a brand new passport.
The next stop was the Indian consulate, where again, on a Sunday morning, the entire staff came in full dress uniform to give me an honor guard procession, which I walked past as they ushered me into the consul general himself who affixed the visa to my passport. He leaned in towards me and said, “We bestow our blessings on you. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
Now, I knew who Mother Teresa was, of course, but this was my first realization in finding out what she meant, not just to the world, but to the Indian people.
I get back in the car. I’m getting into this. “Where next?”
She says, “We’re ahead of schedule. I’m going to drop you off. I’ll be back at 11:00 AM. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
Sure enough, 11:00 AM, tires squealing, she pulls up with one addition. In the back seat of the station wagon are wedged five Sisters of Charity; five nuns as if sitting on a perch.
They start handing me letters and envelopes in small packages wrapped in burlap and tied with twine and handing me these things and saying, “Well, if you see Sister Nareet and Sister Raphael, please, please sir, give her this from me.”
I’m a courier. This is all before Homeland Security.
We barrel off to JFK. And when we get there, I asked, sotto voce, “Why are the nuns here? They could have just given you these things. I don’t understand why they had to come to the airport.”
And I was told, “Well, I didn’t know how to tell you this, but you don’t have a confirmed seat on the Concorde. You’re flying standby.”
So my eyes widened.
“Well, the sisters are going to go up and down the line of ticketed passengers and beg until someone gives up their seat.”
I stood off to the side as I watched this scene unfold just out of ear shot as these five nuns surround this first New York City businessman. He’s listening to them. He’s looking over at me. He’s looking back at them. He shakes his head. No, he’s sorry. He can’t help. They move on to the next one. And now I can hear their voices, which obviously had been raised. And in about 15 seconds, he realizes that resistance is futile, and he hands over his ticket.
They come towards me and they hand me this ticket as an offering. And they have small triumphal grins on each of their faces, the nun equivalent of a high five. I wag my finger at them. I said, “You, sisters, are little devils. I’m going to tell Mother Teresa what you just did.” And they laughed, and that broke the tension.
Next stop, Calcutta. 24 hours in flight, 100 degrees, 100% humidity. I get off the plane and I’m met by my own personal private security detail of nuns. They whisked me through customs and deliver me directly to the hospital where the doctors are waiting for me. And they intone, “She’s deteriorating.”
I go directly to her room. I’m meeting Mother Teresa for the first time. She’s clearly very weak and she beckons me towards her, and I feel as if I’m about to get a blessing. And she says the following, “Thank you for coming. I will never leave Calcutta. Do not ever disagree with my Indian doctors. I need them. They run my hospitals and clinics, and I will not have them embarrassed.”
And with that, she dismisses me with a wave of her hand.
I go and wash my hands and I come back to examine her. As I go to pull her gown down to listen to her heart and lungs, the nurse, the nuns that surround her lift the gown up. I pull the gown down. They pull the gown up. This Kabuki dance goes on for several minutes until, from clear exhaustion, I just banished them from the room.
After I performed my examination, I still don’t know what’s wrong with her. So I do what an infectious disease doctor does. I do my cultures and my Gram stains and my buffy coat smears and my Zhang preps. And we agree we’ll meet the next morning at 9:00 AM.
As I leave the hotel, I’m set upon 5,000 pilgrims who are holding a candle lit prayer vigil. I escape back to the hotel where I pour myself a stiff drink and order room service for dinner and turn on the local news hoping it will serve as a distraction. And there I am, the lead story on the evening news. That night and every night footage of Dr. Lombardi entering and leaving the hospital with the reporters saying, “Dr. Lombardi has come from the United States to attend to Mother Teresa as she inches closer towards death.”
The drum beat of the death watch had begun.
She deteriorates over the next 48 hours. She’s in septic shock. “The rude unhinging of the mechanism of life,” as it was described 150 years ago as apt a description now. And on the third day, two propitious events collide. The first is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen, small, tiny translucent dew drops on the blood culture plate. This is important. This could be a bacterial infection. This is an important clue. And the second is the Pope’s cardiologist flies in from Rome. He’s an impressive man, straight from central casting, a head of silver hair, a Brioni suit, Hermes tie, Gucci loafers.
At our first meeting, when I tell the group of doctors, excitedly that the cultures are turning positive, we may have an answer here, and my concern is that a pacemaker that was put in several months before could be the cause of the infection, he erupts Vesuviusly. “Out of the question,” he bellows. “This is a clear case of malaria.” Well, if they could diagnose malaria anywhere, it would be on the sub-continent of India. And this wasn’t the case.
She worsens over the next couple of days. And I’m having dreams where she’s actually falling just beyond my outstretched hand. And I changed my routine. Rather than fleeing the hospital at the end of the day through the side exit, I go out through the front. I walk through the pilgrims and I’m bolstered by their love and their devotion.
On the fifth day, I make my most impassioned plea. I stand before the group and I tell them that, “This is septic shock. It has a bacterial cause. And it’s due to the pacemaker. This pacemaker must be removed.” Dr. Brioni, as I’ve come to call him, stands at the lectern carrying his copy of the Merck Manual. It’s a small book that many doctors carry. He has the Italian version, Merck a’Manuale’
And in a scene right out of Shakespeare, as he talks, he’s pounding the lectern. “If you listen,” boom! boom! boom! “to this American upstart,” boom! “I will not be held responsible.” boom! And the sounds ricochet through the somber conference room like gunshots. And in that moment, in that instant,
I looked into the eyes of the courtly, elegant Indian doctors and they had lost respect for him.
They asked us to wait outside as they consider their options. I sat there with my vinyl knapsack and my socks with sandals. He sat next to me, elegantly attired with two equally elegantly attired attaches from the Italian consulate. They called us back in and said, “We’ve decided to go with Dr. Lombardi.” He silently packed his bag, left the hospital and went directly to the airport and flew out of the country.
I said, “Let’s get that pacemaker out.” And they looked at me. “You want it out? You have to take it out.” I said, “I’ve never done that before.” They gave me this wonderful, non-verbal, Bengali head waddle like…
So I went down to her room. I banished the nuns. I got a charge nurse and a basic tray, and I prepared the patient. The pacemaker box came out readily, but the wire, the wire that had been sitting in her right ventricles for several months was tethered into place and it would not budge. I twisted and turned and did all kinds of little body English. And this thing was stuck. I started to sweat. My glasses fogged over.
There have been stories, if you pull hard enough, you can put a hole in the ventricle and she could bleed into her chest and die within a matter of minutes. So in the most surreal moment, I said a prayer to Mother Theresa for Mother Teresa. And this catheter came loose. Thank you. I took it out. I cultured the tip and I proved that this pacemaker was the cause of her infection.
She got better. Her fever broke. She woke up. A couple of days later, she’s sitting in a chair eating. My work was done. But, they wouldn’t let me leave. I stayed another two weeks as I was the only doctor who could start her IVs, who could thread these catheters into these tiny, fragile elderly woman’s veins. It’s a skill I had picked up in the mid 1970s as a medical student at NYU Bellevue where I learned to start IVs in the hardened veins of IV drug addicts. It’s a skill I honestly thought I would never ever need again.
When it was my time to leave, they held a press conference and they publicly thanked me. And that’s why I’m able to tell this story. I flew back to my life and to my two sons, one of whom is here.
She lived another eight years, and I saw her periodically. But the best part of this for me is that I have an ongoing relationship with the sisters. They’re a wonderful group of women. They truly do God’s work, however you may want to define that. And I take care of whatever their medical problems are.
Several months ago, the mother superior came in. I had to fill out some paperwork. And she brought two young novitiates with her. And she asked me, “Dr. Lombardi, can we go to the back? Can they see the pictures?” I have some pictures on the wall that memorialize this trip. And they like to see the faces of the other sisters when they were so young. And I said, “Of course.”
And we go to the back and they’re oohing and aahing. And one young novitiate squeezed my arm and she says, “Dr. Lombardi, you represent a link to our past.” And I said, “I’m deeply honored by that.”
And the other sister says to me, “Dr. Lombardi, in the convent, we think of you as a rock star.”