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Journey to Calcutta: The Doctoring of Mother Teresa

September 21, 1989|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

CALCUTTA — Until the phone rang in his Upper Eastside Manhattan apartment on the afternoon of Sept. 9, there had been nothing all that special about Dr. George Lombardi's life.

At 33, he had built up a respectable medical practice, specializing in tropical diseases at New York Hospital's Cornell Medical Center.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he had dabbled in "good causes" in the 1970s, having rejected a Princeton scholarship to spend his undergraduate years at the City College of New York, principally to help out in the Harlem ghetto surrounding the campus.

And there were those seven months he spent in eastern Kenya in 1984, doing some key research that led to effective treatment of schistosomiasis, a disease that at the time afflicted 80% of the natives in the region.

But the late '80s came, and Lombardi had largely given up on idealistic notions of changing the world. Maybe the world didn't really want to change, he figured. So he settled into his practice and a relatively anonymous life devoted to his patients, his wife, his two children and the prospect of a future with few surprises.

Then came the phone call.

The voice on the other end said simply that there was an elderly woman who was gravely ill and needed his help. But it was hardly a typical patient referral.

The ailing woman was Mother Teresa, the universally acclaimed Nobel Peace laureate and champion of the world's poor. And the caller was one of her most loyal benefactors in America.

"She said Mother Teresa was very ill and that they had almost lost her the previous night," Lombardi recalled this week. "The benefactress said a colleague of mine had referred her to me as a specialist in infectious diseases.

"Then she told me that Mother Teresa had been admitted to a hospital in Calcutta with a very high fever, nausea and vomiting blood, and that her doctors could not identify the infection. Finally, she asked if I would be willing to talk to her doctors and help out.

"What was I going to say--no?"

Flurry of Phone Calls

So began the flurry of international telephone calls and the series of unlikely events that, within 24 hours, put the soft-spoken doctor halfway around the world, in Calcutta, at Mother Teresa's bedside.

His mission: to help save a woman considered by many throughout the world to be a living saint.

"If you think about it like that, you can be paralyzed," Lombardi said Tuesday night as he began his long journey home aboard an Indian Airlines passenger jet after 10 days he will not soon forget. "And you really don't think about it in that way. I was asked to contribute, and I think I did contribute. And now it's time for me to get back to my patients, my family and my life."

It is not, of course, quite that simple.

During those 10 days, Lombardi contributed in ways that the unassuming doctor clearly would prefer not to acknowledge. Although Mother Teresa remains bedridden in a Calcutta hospital with a weak heart, even his Indian counterparts acknowledge that Lombardi's presence was crucial in identifying and defeating the infection that was bringing the champion of charity nearer to death.

Lombardi recalled that he had to navigate several serious obstacles to reach her bedside.

The first one was bureaucratic, and it came even before he left for India. He had no passport.

Strings Pulled, Doors Opened

"I called the State Department duty officer in New York, and he said it would be impossible to get one until Monday morning," Lombardi recalled. "I called back the benefactress, Mrs. Jan Petri, and she said not to worry about it.

"At 6 o'clock the next morning, which was Sunday, they opened up the passport office at Rockefeller Center to give me a passport. It's unbelieveable, the reach of Mother Teresa and her work.

"At 7 a.m., they opened up the Indian consulate to give me a visa. . . . There were six or eight people waiting there for us. And, as I was leaving, they were telling me, Mother Teresa is a god. She is a saint. And, at that point, I got a little nervous. I mean, she's 79, after all, and I didn't want to get everybody's hopes up."

The second hurdle came 24 hours later, when he arrived at Woodland's Nursing Home, Calcutta's only state-of-the-art hospital. He knew he had to win the confidence of the other members of Mother Teresa's medical team, even though he had taken pains to consult each one of them before he left America to make sure they actually did want his help.

At First, Tension

"It's always kind of tense in the beginning," Lombardi said. "You're asking yourself, 'Are these guys incompetent? Do they think I'm incompetent? Who's on first? Who's on second?' That kind of thing.

"The first thing they asked was what I thought was wrong with her. I felt it was kind of a test. I said, 'I'd like to examine her first,' and they agreed."

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