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Cherish the Gift

It was a perfect autumn day in St. Petersburg, Florida. The year was 1999, but I still remember that day’s sparkly blue sky. I was driving down a busy street, peering at the signs to locate my destination. Finally I spotted the nursing home, a two-story concrete structure, grey and uninviting. I took a deep breath, parked and walked to the entrance.

Entering the small lobby, I was overwhelmed by the nauseating smell of stale urine. To reach the front desk, I had to weave through a jumble of wheelchairs, some holding slouched bodies, others supporting patients who called out and reached to touch me as I walked by.

“Can you please tell me which is Abby Butler’s room?” I asked the woman at the desk.

For many years I had sidestepped volunteer activities like this, being too busy with my medical practice and with raising my family.

But my pastor suggested that I visit a nursing-home resident named Abby, saying, “She would really love to meet you, since she’s also a doctor. I think she’s even in your specialty.”

I didn’t feel I could refuse and was curious to know her story, so I agreed to go.

Waiting for the elevator, I covered my nose to block the smell, muttering, “How can she live in this place?”

Abby, I discovered, shared a double room on the second floor. A large woman, she sat propped up in bed, her beaming face peering from behind the trapeze that hung in front of her. She looked to be in her late forties—younger than I’d expected. Her roommate, a loud, elderly lady with dementia, lay in the far bed by the window.

After some formalities, Abby and I began chatting. She told me that years earlier, just after completing her radiology residency and starting her first job, she’d gone on vacation with her husband and had suffered a serious bike accident. The resulting spinal-cord injury had left her paralyzed below the chest.

She talked only briefly about the years following the accident, but alluded to mental-health problems, now improved, as well as to family and marriage tensions, and ultimately a divorce. She never returned to work.

Listening as Abby spoke, I realized how differently her medical career might have gone in our current era. With teleradiology and other advances, she most likely could have returned to her profession.

But I was awed by Abby’s gracious acceptance of her circumstances. She blamed no one, laughed easily and was curious about everything, asking many questions about my family, my faith, my friends and my travels. We talked about her medical specialty, diagnostic radiology, and how it compared to my work as a radiation oncologist. When I told her about my plans to transition from radiation oncology to family medicine, she asked a torrent of questions.

Abby mentioned that she had no family in the area, and that her outings were limited to doctors’ visits via a wheelchair-accessible van. I made inquires and learned that I would be permitted to take her outside for some fresh air. When I let Abby know, she was thrilled and ready to go.

To prepare for these trips, the staff used a mechanized lift to ease Abby from her bed and into her wheelchair. At first, our outings were no more than a brief roll along the front sidewalk. But gradually we started venturing further—to the Chinese restaurant across the street. Pushing Abby’s heavy wheelchair across that street (a bustling four-lane thoroughfare) was a challenge. Still, we made it safely across every time—and we greatly enjoyed those lunches.

Though Abby’s contacts and resources were shockingly limited, her interests were wide-ranging. She relished finding useful information for me—for example, travel tips for trips I was planning. In those days personal computers weren’t yet universally available, and certainly not in this nursing home. Abby would request travel guides by phone, cut out maps and photographs from magazines and triumphantly provide me with a folder of her findings.

One day, I shared Abby’s story with a friend, and together, we decided to do something special for her: We purchased a small computer with dial-up internet access for her bedside.

Internet use and Google searching were just starting to take off—but it was enough to connect Abby to the world via email and resources on the Web. It was exhilarating for Abby—and for us.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, I arranged wheelchair transport so that Abby could join me and my daughters and friends for Thanksgiving dinner at my home. Several guests were vegetarians, prompting a special plant-based Thanksgiving celebration that included leeks baked with goat cheese, asparagus tart, rice vegetable pilaf, eggplant curry, tomato cilantro salad, and more. The day was fun for everyone, but especially for Abby, who was ebullient.

A few days later, Abby developed a urinary-tract infection. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she died soon after. My sense of shock and sadness was shared by my family and friends who had just met her.

To my deep regret, I couldn’t attend Abby’s funeral and didn’t get to meet her family or learn more about her story.

Later, though, my friend showed me a letter that Abby had written to her brother the day after our Thanksgiving dinner. In it, Abby shared vivid details about every person there, recounted all the conversations, described in detail every dish served and stressed how much the day had meant to her.

Now, pinned on the bulletin board just above my desk, I keep a handwritten 3″ x 5″ card that Abby gave me all those years ago. On it, in her block printing, are these words:

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift: That is why they call it the present.”

Knowing Abby was a privilege. And she taught me that every day is indeed a gift. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Donna Chacko, a retired physician, is the author of the award-winning memoir Pilgrimage: A Doctor’s Healing Journey. She practiced medicine for decades, first as a radiation oncologist and then as a family physician caring for immigrants and the homeless in Washington, DC. In 2014, she founded the ministry Serenity and Health to promote health of body, mind and spirit and to share her monthly blog. “I first became interested in writing after retirement, seeing it as a way that I could better share a message of hope and healing.”


17 thoughts on “Cherish the Gift”

  1. Took me a while to get to it, but I finally read the story and was so touched and moved. So symbolic of the kind and generous human being you are. Thank you so much for sharing it. Wishing you and your family very happy holidays.

  2. Clementine Nkemasong

    I am here at the Blessed Sacrament thanking Almighty God for sending a beautiful and amazing Angel dear-Dr. Donna Clare Chacko to save my life and that of my family!
    Thank you a bazillion for making me the RN that I am today and for giving me options in this life!
    You are an epitome of unconditional love, selflessness, compassion and kindness not only to Abby, but to many people in needs out there.
    St Francis of Assisi incarnation, I salute you!
    May Almighty God’s uncommon blessings continue to rest in your tent in Jesus name!
    May God’s favor be attached to your name/destiny and that of your entire lineage in the power invested in the most precious blood of Jesus!
    May kings rise and honor you and children because of your star that shines so bright my destiny helper and promoter!
    I love you so much Donna and I lack words to express my gratitude. The world is definitely a better place because you are in it!
    I know that Almighty God looks at you and say:
    “Well done faithful servant “
    Thank you a bazillion… love love love forever!❤️⭐️

  3. Thank you for sharing this story Donna. It’s truly an inspiration. We all have to choose how to respond to the joys and sorrows of life.

  4. This was a very deeply inspiring story that caught me up in the tangle of your words. I feel like that although Abby died shortly after you met her, she would have been glad to experience the love and kindness of a very special person like you. The story put me through many very unique and different emotions, and to call today a gift (the present) is a very beautiful thing in various ways. I also find this story especially good since I can have many good stories and memories shared with me from one very special person: my grandmother. Thank you, Grandma, for everything and for this one beautifully written story.

    1. Hi Lena, Thanks for your very kind words. You are very sweet to write this comment.
      Love, Grandma
      Note to readers…Lena is my granddaughter. Don’t you agree she is a terrific writer at age 10?

  5. Loved the way you wrote out this piece, loved that you learned so much from Abby, and love that it reignited my passion for helping others. Whenever I feel alone I try to do something for someone else, your story reminded me that I can go visit nursing or hospice patients for a few hours of distraction. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. Dr. Chacko, your story is a perfect example of how–when we extend ourselves to others in difficult circumstances–we always receive “more” (grace, understanding, a wider worldview) than we gave. That was definitely true in my peds hospice practice. Thank you for sharing your story.

  7. Yes the ending through me to sadness too as I was so enthralled in your description of how easy it was for you to help Abby be happy. You made a difference in her life and yours and that is a blessing
    Thank you for sharing

  8. Louis Verardo, MD, FAAFP

    Dr. Chacko, that was a very powerful story, with an unexpected ending which frankly caught me unawares. Your extraordinary kindness to Abby and her own acceptance of her situation were both very remarkable to me; things could easily have been quite different, and often are, from what I’ve witnessed in my own life and practice experiences. I am going to try to become better at extending myself to others, and also better at dealing with my own disabling medical issues, as a result of reading about you, Abby, and the connection you made.

  9. I am so awestruck by this essay. I am currently inpatient for GI surgery and due to complexities, have been here 10 days. I found inspiration in this article as it pushes me to look at the magic in life and its interconnections…not at yesterday’s complications. Thank you .

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