Mother Teresa: Saintly woman, tough patient

Cardiologist tells the tale of revered sister's final years

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In the last seven years of her life, Mother Teresa was often near death but saw some of her most heartfelt prayers answered. Only the hope of establishing a home for abandoned and forgotten people in China persuaded her to accept advanced medical care, her cardiologist said.

"She was the worst patient I ever had," said Dr. Patricia Aubanel from Coronado, Calif., who often traveled with her from 1990 until her death in 1997.

Many people who were close to Mother Teresa told stories of her life last weekend at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. College President James Towey, who once served as Mother Teresa's legal counsel, organized the gathering.

Dr. Aubanel was originally from Tijuana, Mexico, and in 1990 the Catholic bishop of that city called her in California. The bishop asked her to see an elderly friend of his who had been in Tijuana and had gone to the San Diego area, was very ill and had not seen a doctor. She found Mother Teresa in a Missionaries of Charity convent, suffering from pneumonia and popping about 20 nitroglycerin pills a day for chest pain.

She refused to go to the hospital.

"I'm happy to go to Jesus," Mother Teresa said.

"Are you finished with your mission?" the doctor demanded.

For years Mother Teresa had been asking nearly everyone she met to pray that her sisters would be able to get into China. Now she asked, "Would you help me to go to China? Imagine all the souls for Jesus."

"I said that I will do everything that is possible so you can get to China," Dr. Aubanel said. Mother Teresa finally consented, entered Scripps Clinic and had five blood vessels to her heart unblocked.

During this same period, Mother Teresa saw the fulfillment of another long-held desire, the establishment of a house for her sisters in Albania. She was born in 1910 in Skopje, which was then in Albania, later in Yugoslavia and now in Macedonia. Much of her family had remained in Albania, which was the most militantly atheistic nation in the world under Enver Hoxha.

Even private practice of faith was punishable by death. For 40 years, Mother Teresa could not go home to her family, and her mother could not get to her. Her mother died calling her name.

Mr. Hoxha died in 1985, and four years later she made her first visit home. Her greatest desire was to visit the graves of her mother and sister. As her car entered the cemetery in the capital, they were waylaid by an unexpected ceremony at Mr. Hoxha's tomb, said Jan Petrie, her traveling companion. "Mother said a little prayer," she said.

A few hours later she went to lunch with the late dictator's widow. "This woman was partly responsible for keeping her apart from her family," Ms. Petrie said. "The first thing she said to her was, 'I prayed for your husband today.' "

On a later visit, the Albanian president told her it was against the law to have a religious center of any kind in Albania. Ms. Petrie said Mother Teresa replied, "I'm ready to break that law."

She persevered and eventually got a house, which became a home for disabled people. She also accepted government help to move her mother's remains across the cemetery, next to Mother Teresa's older sister. Because of the law against religion there was not a single cross in the cemetery, but Mother Teresa insisted.

"Those were the first two graves in the country to have a cross on them. Now the cemetery is full of crosses," Ms. Petrie said.

By late 1996, Dr. Aubanel believed Mother Teresa could not live much longer. She urged her to make arrangements for a successor as superior of the Missionaries of Charity, and ordered a new invention, a small, portable ventilator. There was great difficulty getting it to Calcutta, and it arrived Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Mother Teresa didn't want to use it. Dr. Aubanel protested that she had prayed for this equipment and her prayers had been answered by the Virgin of Guadalupe. To thank the Virgin, she said, Mother Teresa would have to use it while Dr. Aubanel prayed the rosary. Mother Teresa agreed, and, ever after, she would only use the ventilator while the doctor prayed the rosary -- which she did, very slowly.

After Sister Nirmala Joshi was elected to succeed her, Mother Teresa insisted on going to Rome to introduce her to Pope John Paul II. The pope was not only her superior but also her close friend and spiritual soul mate.

Dr. Aubanel protested futilely that her lungs and heart were so fragile that the flight would likely kill her. When they landed in Rome in June 1997 Mother Teresa was vomiting and they had to set up the ventilator in a room at the airport.

When she had stabilized, Pope John Paul was waiting for her. As she entered the room, he knelt before her.

"He kissed her hand and said, 'Mother. My mother,'" Dr. Aubanel said.

At a June 29 Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. Mother Teresa was in a wheelchair and so clearly ill that the pope's aides did not call her forward for his blessing. She was heartbroken, and buried her face in her hands, Dr. Aubanel said.

Then the pope, who was frail from Parkinson's disease and had great difficulty walking, rose and began walking unsteadily toward her. Told he was coming, she looked up and pushed herself to her feet. They literally fell into each other's arms.

"The whole church was able to see this great love that they had for each other, and respect," Dr. Aubanel said. "Every single person was crying. That was the last time they were together."

Three days later they heard the news that Hong Kong, where the Missionaries of Charity had a house, had reverted to the control of the People's Republic of China. The sisters and Dr. Aubanel brought Mother Teresa the news: "Mother! Mother! You are in China!"

She repeated, "Oh, I'm in China. I'm in China. [God] loves me so much that I'm in China," she said.

"Yes Mother," she was told. "He loves you so much that, since you could not go to China, he brought China to you."

At that instant, Dr. Aubanel said, she remembered her promise seven years earlier. "I had promised to get her into China. This is the end," she thought.

When she was stable enough to fly, she returned to Calcutta.

"A month later, she died peacefully," Dr. Aubanel said.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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