By Juan Parodi
Thirty-four years ago, a friend of mine, who is an internist, called me and asked if I could help a poor priest who had fallen ill and could not afford treatment in a private hospital. That night I went to a small hospital in Buenos Aires and found a very sick patient lying in an old bed. He was septic, anuric and had severe right upper quadrant pain. He was on antibiotics but presented no response.
I examined him carefully and my impression was that he had an acute cholecystitis with localised peritonitis. After giving him 1,000cc of saline solution, I took him to the operating room. What follows is what the patient has told me since. Until recently, I had no memories of what occurred that night back in 1980.
I performed a laparotomy under general anaesthesia and found a gangrenous cholecystitis with localised peritonitis. Culture of the wall of the gangrenous gall bladder showed the growth of Clostridium perfringens bacteria. I then performed a cholecystectomy and placed a drain. The patient had a rapid improvement and in two days was out of dialysis and walking. I discharged him in 10 days.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, my friend Jose Di Iorio, his internist, called me and made me remember that night when I assisted Bergoglio. That poor priest who I did not remember was now the Head of the Catholic Church. It was a great surprise for me and made me very happy.
Francis remembered me and asked Di Iorio to invite me to visit him at Santa Marta, a small hotel located outside St Peter’s Square. In April 2014, I was attending the Charing Cross Symposium in London and decided to call the Vatican and, to my surprise, I was invited to visit Francis in two days in a private audience.
The experience I had was unique—I flew to Rome and headed to Santa Marta. My wife Marta and I sat in a small room with modest decoration, and the Pope appeared with a wide smile and said: “Welcome the physician who saved my life”. It was only at that moment that I was reminded that he had been very sick. He showed me the pathology report and his chart with the description of his admission to hospital in 1980. I hugged him and expressed my happiness.
He told me: “I remember your face. That night I thought I was going to die and all of a sudden, a crazy young surgeon arrives and starts to give orders and prepare the operating room. I thought to myself: ‘he is going to save me’, and you did it. I remember you every day when I have a shower—at the time you treated me, the premise that the greater the surgeon the bigger the incision was in vogue, and I did have a big one.”
Francis told me I did not accept the scarce money he tried to give me, a result of the help of his friends. He gave me a book of the history of the founder of the Jesuit Order Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
We had a long conversation about many topics of common interest. I recommended him to exercise every day and take good care of his health. He showed us his small bedroom and told me that he was a happy man doing what he believed was his mission.
I told him that there are thousands of surgeons doing what I did for him. Medicine is a special profession, and our joy is in helping people.
Juan Parodi is a vascular surgeon, Trinidad Hospital, Buenos Aires, Argentina