In an entry on his blog, Dr. Rogério Brandão – a doctor who practices in Brazil – shared lessons he learned from a young patient who was suffering from the effects of cancer. Having been in practice as a physician and oncologist with 29 years of professional experience, he believed that he had become hardened by the struggles experienced by his patients. But he confessed that people don’t understand their capacity for growth until, when faced with adversity, they learn that they are capable of much more.
It was while performing his rounds at a cancer hospital in Pernambuco, Brazil, that Dr. Brandão took the first steps in gaining wisdom and compassion. In the cancer wards, he fell in love with the practice of pediatric oncology. There he witnessed the struggles and pain of his patients: innocent children struck with relentless cancer. Being a father himself, he shuddered to see the pain reflected in the faces of his young patients. He was frightened to see such pain and death, but only until he received a lesson from a patient he now calls his “angel.”
Dr. Brandão’s angel came in the form of an 11-year-old girl, who had suffered two long years of cancer treatments, therapy, injections, and all of the suffering caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But he never saw his little angel falter. She did cry out in pain and show fear in her eyes because, he said, everyone is human.
One day, the doctor went to the hospital early in the morning and found his angel alone in her room. He asked her where he mother was. It was her answer that decades later still brings tears to his eyes. Addressing him as “Tio” – a term of endearment used in Brazil that literally means uncle in English – she said, “Sometimes my mother leaves the room and hides in the corridor where she cries. When I die, she will miss me very much. But, I’m not afraid to die, Uncle. I was not born for this life!”
“And what is death to you, sweetheart?” he asked.
The girl responded, “Well, Uncle, when we’re small, sometimes we sleep in our parents’ bed and then later we wake up in our own bed, don’t we?”
Dr. Brandão recalled just then that he had two daughters, ages six and two years, who sometimes crawled into bed with him and their mother. “That’s right,” he answered.
The little angel said, “One day, I will go to sleep and my Father will come to get me. I’m going to wake up in His house, in my true life!”
The doctor was overwhelmed and did not know what more he could say. He later wrote that he was stunned by the maturity, clarity, and spirituality of a child who had suffered so much.
“And my mother will miss me,” the girl added. The girl used the Portuguese word “saudade,” which is variously translated as nostalgia or a melancholic longing for a beloved someone who may never return. While it may be understood as “missingness,” that imperfect English translation does not convey the depths of emotion attached to the Portuguese.
Restraining his tears, Dr. Brandão asked the girl, “And what does ‘saudade’ mean to you, sweetheart?”
She answered, “It is the love that remains behind!”
The little angel did not remain for long on this earth. But Dr. Brandão learned lessons that he confesses have made him a better man. He has sought to be more humane and caring toward his patients. He has taken stock of what he really values.
The doctor wrote that when the nighttime sky is clear and he sees the stars above him, he imagines the little angel to be one of the brightest stars in the heavens. How good, he wrote, that there is the longing Brazilians call “saudade” – it is the love that stays behind and is eternal.
He wrote of several lessons that he learned from his little angel:
- Be more humane and pleasant with people.
- Each person you meet is facing a struggle.
- Live simply.
- Love generously.
- Take good care of yourself.
- Speak gently.
And, most of all, don’t complain!