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What Really Counts As Meaningful Work?

alec vanderboom

I'm very thankful for all the interesting thoughts posted as comments to my recent post.

I wanted to put a deeper Carmelite question to you thoughtful readers.

What really counts as meaningful work?

There are many dramatic examples of 'important' work, that I witnessed first-hand during my daughter's stay at Children's National Hospital. The most amazing thing was that there was literally one guy, Dr. Kanter, who had the ability to fish an 18 inch plastic tube OUT of my daughter's heart without open heart surgery.

(For those who missed the initial story last year, Baby Tess had a type of IV called a PICC line that broke off in her foot during her hospital stay. An 18 inch plastic piece immediately got sucked up into each of the four ventricles of her heart. The x-ray of what appeared to be a large tangled ball of yarn inside her tiny newborn heart is an image I'd like to forget!)

There was my three week old baby who needed emergency open-heart surgery UNLESS this one guy on the entire hospital staff could fish it out using some tiny heart angioplasty tools.

At first we heard hopeful rumors. Then late at night, we meet the man himself.
Dr. Kanter stood by the NICU crib-side of the baby with the scary chest x-ray. Dr. Kanter promised he could fix it. Dr. Kanter did!

After one hour under a live streaming x-ray, Dr. Kanter used a tiny tool called a "lasso" to fish out that nasty PICC tubing through a tiny slit in her thigh. My beautiful girl was returned to me, with a tiny band-aid on her leg, instead of a giant nasty post-open heart surgery gash up her chest. (Not that Dr. Kanter doesn't do lovely sutures from open-heart surgery, because my buddy Joey T. looks awesome post surgery.) I'm just saying, that this Mama so is grateful for the wonders worked inside the Heart Cath Lab.

So it's kind of weird to have your baby saved by someone with an extremely rare talent. I remember going home and wishing I could match Dr. Kanter's socks. I just wanted to do something to make is life easier, something to help him keep focused on that amazing gift of rescuing other needy babies with walnut size hearts from horrible PICC entanglements.

The odd contrast is that as a Carmelite, I'm starting to understand that all work is "nothing." I mean really, it kind of is. God has all things in his hand. He lets us "help". We can be "co-workers" with God, but it's a loving, invited role only. God doesn't truly need us to do anything. He lets us help Him because He loves us! Sort of like, how I invite my little girls to help me in the kitchen (even though its a far easier and cleaner process without their inept 'help') because I find it to be so much more fun to make cupcakes with friends!

Add to this line of thinking my buddy St. Therese of Lisieux's little way; "picking up a pin for love." If I understand her correctly, she is saying that "that picking up the smallest pin, for the pure Love of God, is more important that all the amazing heart surgeries in the world." Not that heart surgery is "bad", per se. Just that LOVE is what makes an action beautiful for God. "Love of neighbor" is the praise of glory to God.

What my addled Carmelite brain is trying to focus on, is that if I pour my children's cereal into a bowl in the morning with pure, holy Love THAT is meaningful work that is EQUAL to Dr. Kanter's angioplasty skills for little Tess.

I think that is right.

Work isn't "meaningful" or "not-meaningful" based on some outside objective criteria--work is meaningful when it is done as a prayer.

That's a really wild concept to me.

To close, I wanted to share two more vivid examples of love from my NICU stay. (My one year anniversary of Tessy's illness begins on September 5th, so indulge me!)

The second surgery for Tess was so much more awful for me than the first. (Tess had a birth defect called duodenal atresia and she needed emergency abdominal surgery at eight days old to correct her blocked small intestine.) For the first surgery, it was clearly an emergency. My kid looked awful. We were handing her over to a caring surgeon with the hope that she could be cured.

For the second surgery, it was a result of a medical equipment failure, which was some how so much harder to accept. A scary foreign object was lodged inside my kid's HEART! One of the hardest things was that Tessy looked fine. She was pink. She was alert. And my kid was FURIOUS! They yanked Tessy's food for more than a 24 hour period to prepare her for this procedure. Tess hated that!

To transport her to the Heart Cath Lab, they put Tess inside this special movable tube called an isolette.

Tess hated it. She knew something was up, and that something was NOT good.

Needless to say, I was a mess. In the prep room for the first surgery, I have sweet memories of holding my little girl's precious head and singing "Be Thou My Vision". In the second surgery waiting area, I was a blubbering mess. I couldn't believe my little girl was crying. I couldn't believe that her skin was so red from pure rage. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be away.

In the middle of this, her anesthesiologist came. He checked with us to confirm that last time she ate. He asked if she was breastmilk or formula. He looked at the pacifier in Tessy's mouth and teased tenderly "What is a breast fed baby like you doing with a binky?" Of course his kind statement made me burst into loud tears. I didn't want my newborn sucking on a pacifier before we had firmly established a breast-feeding routine. However, NOTHING had gone normal with Tess and eating ever since we entered the hospital four weeks ago.

While I'm in the middle of this wrenching tears, a beautiful thing happen. The nurses started to wheel Tessy's isolette into the surgery room when Dr. Rich stopped them. "She doesn't need this!" he said. He opened the isolette and picked up my baby. He carefully cradled Tess in his arms, mindful of her thousands of IV poles. Dr. Rich carried Tess into the surgery room himself, in his arms.

I can't tell you what that meant to me. A doctor holding my sick little Tess like she was a normal newborn baby. I felt his love. I felt like I could trust everyone on that team now to look after my Tess. That unexpected gesture of reassuring "normalcy" was the only way my husband was able to drag his mess of a wife from the spot where she last saw her baby girl disappear from sight.

The second example of "meaningful work" happened while I was waiting for Tessy's heart surgery to finish. A very kind blog reader wrote to me "have a rosary, will travel" and showed up at Children's National Hospital. She had a very cheerful conversation with myself and my husband. At one point in the conversation, however, I needed to take a break. I wanted to purely focus on Tess and pray for her little heart.

I went all by myself on this lonely hospital corridor and curled up in a big window. I held my crucifix in my hands and prayed. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. It was such a weird feeling to have something be so "thumbs up or thumbs down." Dr. Kanter could either fish that thing out, or he couldn't.

In the middle of my prayer, a janitor came by with a mop and a pail. "It's going to be okay," he called out. I shook my head. I couldn't explain that this wasn't a routine heart angioplasty. Instead, some freak accident had happened to lodge a gigantic foreign object inside my daughter's heart.

"He doesn't really understand how bad things are for Tess," I thought. I couldn't even meet his eyes. I looked down at the cross in my hands and started to cry.

"It's going to be okay," he firmly said again.

I didn't believe him. I didn't look at him. I started praying again instead. After a while, the man moved on down the hall. When I left the windowsill after a long while, I didn't see any trace of him.

Many minutes later, Dr. Kanter emerged from the surgery room flush with success. One of the first things that I thought after (oh my does that PICC tube look super scary close-up!) was "The janitor was right! How did he know for certain that my Tess would be okay?"

I never saw the janitor again. Who was he? But I give you this closing thought, who had the more meaningful work that day in the Heart Cath Lab of Children's Hospital? The amazingly talented Dr. Kanter who fished a PICC line out of a newborn's heart without causing any soft tissue damage? Or the janitor who encouraged a mother to have Hope?