I prayed silently as I rushed down the long hospital corridor to the neurology unit—Seigneur, donnez-moi les mots pour exprimer. Please God, give me the words. A new resident chaplain at UNC hospitals, I had received a page that simply said, “French translator needed for patient.”
As I entered the room, physicians, social workers and nurses surrounding the patient turned and looked to me. Though I held a degree in French, it had been more than three years since I’d had a lengthy conversation in that language. What if I was not able to help?
The white coats parted and I saw a young man staring at me with large brown eyes. His nurse lifted him to a sitting position against his pillows. The medical staff circled his bed, enclosing us in a cocoon of awkward smiles. I nodded toward them, and spoke directly to him: Bonjour, je m’appelle Dana. J’espère que je pourrai vous aider. Hello. My name is Dana. I hope that I will be able to assist you.
As soon as the first word left my mouth, he smiled the largest smile I had ever seen and answered, Merci de votre aide! Thank you for your help.
Leaning close, I concentrated carefully on his lips in an effort to understand the voice made faint by a tracheotomy. With each exchange, his face became more and more animated. He seemed unable to stop smiling.
That first conversation was brief, but I soon learned his story. Pierre Léon* was a refugee and Baptist pastor from Haiti. He and his family had settled in Florida, where they began a new ministry. But their lives had changed suddenly when their van collided with another as they traveled south on I-95 after a family vacation in New York. His wife and children were treated at a county hospital for minor injuries and released, but Pierre, who had been driving, was airlifted to UNC Hospitals. He was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed below the neck.
Without family or friends in the Triangle, and with no financial resources, his wife and three young children reluctantly accepted a friend’s offer to drive from Florida and take them home, leaving Pierre at UNC.
Weeks later, when he was finally able to speak, Pierre’s doctors realized that English was not his native language. Despite readily available Spanish translators, there were few resources for him. He had no way to communicate until the September day when we spoke in French.
For the next nine months, I served as both his chaplain and his translator. These roles were often mixed, making it difficult to see when one stopped and the other started. He told me whether he was in pain, or if he had questions for his nurses and doctors, and I translated for the staff. When we had no translation work, we spent time in prayer and with Scripture. When I read to him from my French Bible, Pierre closed his eyes and settled his head against his pillow. As he smiled, I wondered what he saw. Could he see glimpses of the sacred? Pierre’s body was a broken remnant of what it once had been—the embodiment of the narrative of tragedy and survival—but his spirit and faith were whole and beautiful.
By Easter of my UNC residency, my hope in the resurrection was shaken. I had been present in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) for more than 200 deaths. My days were filled with death. I knew its rhythms, and could feel the sacred in the room when the final breath left the body. Death lingered on my skin and in my soul. End of life was a part of my being, and I carried in my heart the burden of each death, each name, each memory and each family.
When I read to Pierre during sunny afternoons in his room, the resurrection became clear again. I began to see the brilliant sun and know hope again. Each day when I walked through the glass corridor to Pierre’s room, the bright light of the heavens came through the windows and scorched my eyes. The walk was a transition from the dark edge of MICU to the light and hope in his room. It was the same corridor I had walked down when the medical team paged me and Pierre and I met for the first time. The glass corridor was the connection from death to life.
Pierre talked about his family, his ministry and his perpetual loneliness. He told me about his wife and children, their new lives in the United States, and his service in the name of Christ. As we talked of hope—the hope that he would return to the people he loved most in the world—I began to find my hope again.
Pierre’s hope became tangible one bright day in the late spring. He was well enough to go home. His family was waiting for him, and he and I had to say goodbye. I was losing a dear friend. Pierre had cared for me in ways unknown to him. Through him, I was renewed and blessed. Though I was his translator, he translated for me what it was to minister, to serve, to be present. He helped me to remember that there is indeed light among the shadows. Merci à Dieu.
* Identifying information has been changed to protect the patient’s privacy.
J. Dana Trent D’06 is an ordained Baptist minister. She currently works at Duke Divinity School.