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Las Luces De Navidad

By Priscilla Waggoner

December 30, 2016
     Not all Christmas stories take place in December with snowy landscapes or Santa and reindeer. Some Christmas stories don’t even mention the word, yet, the heart…the message…of some tales suggest they should be read during this season most of all because that is when we all are a little more likely to ponder things like faith, hope and love. 

      This is one of those stories.

     Written by Dr. Jeff Waggoner of Eads—better known to his patients as “Doc”—this story is from a six part series titled “Las Luces de Navidad” that originally appeared in December 2011 as part of his on-going column in the Lamar Ledger.  The series was based on Jeff’s experiences in the summer of 1967, right before his senior year in college. He’d just turned 21 years old, and, with his sights set on being a doctor, Jeff volunteered for a three month internship aboard the world’s first peacetime fully functioning hospital ship.  This massive vessel went all over the world providing much needed health care while the medical staff—all volunteers—educated, immunized, operated on and treated the poorest of the poor. 

     When this ship sailed into port, the name painted in huge block letters on the side said it all.  The ship was called the great SHIP HOPE.

      That summer of ’67, the SHIP HOPE docked off the coast of Colombia in the port city of Cartagena, a desperately impoverished place.  There, among the barrio streets laden with filth and despair, Jeff met a very little boy whose life made such an impression that he still lingered in Jeff’s memory almost half a century later.Ship Hope, Dr Jeffrey Waggoner

      In one of the earlier articles in the series, Jeff described their meeting…

     I found out his name was Eduardo. He had been dropped at the ship’s entrance by a woman who identified herself as a neighbor. She said she could no longer care for him and asked for help. She then left.

      Eduardo was three. He weighed 14 pounds—roughly what some nine month old infants might weigh.  He was apparently unable to speak and often showed little interest in eating. My third night of watching him, I saw him look around the room when the other families were visiting the other patients. I had never seen a look like the one that crossed Eduardo’s face. I doubt I ever will. It was a look that shrieked of hopelessness and longing.

     I walked to his crib and began talking in my very limited pigeon Spanish. He had a dirty diaper. I’d never changed a diaper, and as I fumbled through the task, Eduardo ignored me. I finished, laughed and put him back in his crib. He finally looked at me. I was dismissed as something inconsequential.

       I returned to see him later that evening after visiting hours were over. He still ignored me. I returned the next day and was still ignored.  On the third day, he finally looked surprised. His surprise surprised me.

      I learned that Eduardo’s medical problems were not terribly complicated. He was simply starved as well as infested with parasites. The parasites had been treated but he had no interest in eating. In truth, Eduardo had no interest in living. Depravation had sucked out his will to live. After watching the tiny boy for a few days, I was sure that Eduardo’s depravation had been one of love even more than one of calories.

     I had been raised in abundance. I had never been hungry. I had also never doubted the love of my family. I had nothing to deserve my life. Eduardo had done nothing to deserve his.

     And now, a beautiful story.


Written by
Jeff “Doc” Waggoner, M.D.

      The American physicians who volunteered for Project HOPE worked a rotation of six weeks. During that time, they were paired with a physician from Cartagena’s medical community. This was the heart of HOPE’s People to People foundation—the effort to not only educate but also form friendships between foreign medical communities from different countries.

      Because of this, patients stayed on the ship only as long as needed to get through the acute phase of their illnesses. They recovered at home or, in some rare cases, in one of Cartagena’s hospitals. This meant that my small friend Eduardo would probably only be on the ship until he began to gain weight.  He would have to catch up on his development at his home.

      Eduardo had no home.

      There were no relatives to help Eduardo begin to walk, much less talk. That was why he never had visitors. It was only because of the heroic efforts of a next door neighbor that Eduardo and his brothers and sisters had survived. There were many, many small unmarked graves in Cartagena’s cemeteries testifying to other grim possibilities. I had little doubt that barring some sort of miracle, Eduardo was headed for one of these graves.

      It was with these worries that one evening I carried him up to the ship’s second deck. A storm had moved in, and I thought we both might like to see what it would bring. What it brought was an unexpected fury, a very impressive display of sound and light. To be honest, it scared the weeops out of both of us.

      Eduardo wrapped his tiny bony arms around my neck. I had never seen him as animated. He began shaking. I was about to go inside when a bolt of lightning struck the bay not more than a hundred yards from the ship. It was close enough such that the clap of thunder arrived at the same time as the light. The bay’s water seemed to catch the lightning’s fire and hold it. Eduardo moved his head closer to my ear. “Luz,” he whispered, carrying the middle of the word so long that it sounded like the end of a song.

     I nodded and agreed. “Sí, luz.” Then I realized what had happened. Eduardo had spoken. I pulled my head away from his grip ever so slightly so I could see him.  His eyes were focused where the lightning had struck. He turned toward me. “Luz,” he said, his whisper ever more conspiratorial. I wondered why a bolt of lightning that had damn near blown both of us into the bay was a secret, but I joined in the conspiracy and whispered, “Luuuuuuz.”

      He gripped my neck like a sailor holding to driftwood.

      Eduardo spoke no more words that night, but when I tucked him in his bed, he returned my goodbye with a small smile. I was evidently no longer insignificant. A shared moment with a bolt of lightning had elevated my stature.

      The next morning, I ran into the doctor’s daughter who was seeing Eduardo during the day.
     “Eduardo spoke last night”, I said.

     She leaned toward me. “Why are you whispering?”

      I laughed. “I guess because he whispered and made such a point of it.”

      “He really spoke?”

      I described what had happened with the lightning. As I told her about how tightly he had gripped my neck, I tried to show the emotional distance I thought a medical professional would show. I failed miserably. “If we don’t do something,” I said, my shoulders sagging, “he’ll be kicked off the ship, sent back to that Fish Lady and die. He’s gaining weight and the parasites have been treated. He might have to leave any day because his acute treatment is over.”

      “Would they really do that?” she asked.

      “They do it every day,” I answered. “They have to. There isn’t one kid on the pediatric unit who wouldn’t benefit from staying on the ship, eating a healthy diet, and finishing the treatment for whatever he or she has. But they need to be moved out so others can be treated. They need to move out so the doctors can see new cases and learn from them. That’s what HOPE is about.”

     “Do you think that’s right?”

      I was quiet for a long time. Finally, I said, “We have got to do something to keep that kid on the ship.”

      The doctor’s daughter laughed quietly “You mean break the rules for one child?”

      “No. I mean, yes. I mean…I mean…”

      An uncomfortable silence fell over both of us. The doctor’s daughter began tapping her foot. Then she started rocking back and forth, almost imperceptibly. Then she flashed a huge smile. She stood up and whacked me on the arm. “I have an idea,” she said. “See you tonight.”

     I was almost late for the immunization van’s departure. As it moved through Cartagena’s barrios towards the road that would lead us inland and the jungle, I could not push aside the image of Eduardo’s face, filled with wonder at the sight of the lightning. I could also hear his very small voice.  “La luz.”

     In the weeks that followed, Eduardo not only grew closer to Jeff but opened up to other volunteers on the ship.  In Jeff’s words, “Eduardo was a hit,” especially among the nurses, and he continued to grow healthier and stronger.  Yet, it never left anyone’s mind—most of all, Jeff’s—that if Eduardo was returned to the world from which he was rescued, all he had gained would be lost. Probably forever.

     In a later article, Jeff went on with the story…

     There was a young nurse named Mary who searched her soul.  Mary’s sister was childless after a number of years of futile infertility consultations.

     One afternoon, Mary entered the radio room and closed its door. She was in the radio room for about 20 minutes.  She exited, wiping tears from her eyes. She stopped, looked up at the dozen or so of us who waited, all of us trying to not look overly hopeful. None of us wanted Mary to feel that she had failed if her sister decided she wanted no part of her responsibility for a child she had never met, a child who weeks earlier had been unable to speak. 

     It took Mary a moment to compose herself.  I stared at the ships’ deck. I barely knew Mary and had never met her sister, yet I had stepped inside a moment in both their lives that was profoundly important and intimate.  I felt like an interloper and wanted to treat this moment with the respect and deference it deserved.  As a doctor, I would eventually stand in the midst of countless other similar moments.  From the outset, I sensed the importance of such times and was aware that the opportunities to share in them was a gift of enormous proportions.  I try to share this awareness. I believe it to be one of compassion’s essential components.

     Mary’s sister agreed to adopt Eduardo.

     Jeff’s internship ended, and he returned to New Jersey for his last year in college. However, he did see Eduardo one more time—the day, months later, when the SHIP HOPE returned to the United States, and Eduardo met his new parents.

     I went to the restaurant where the celebration meal was being held.

     It took me but an instant to find Eduardo. He was in the arms of a very large, broad faced Irishman wearing an even broader smile.

     I knew he had to be Eduardo's new dad. Obviously, so did Eduardo. I had carried him in my arms many times. I had watched him in the arms of many others. This time was different.

     The nurses told me that out of the hundreds of people greeting the ship earlier that day, Eduardo had immediately picked out his new parents and raced to them. He'd been in his father's arms almost constantly since then. I guess this time he finally felt safe.

     At dinner, his dad noted that introducing Eduardo to the U.S. at Christmas had its problems. "He's going to expect everything to be lit up like this all the time. He will expect Christmas lights every day."

     I sat across from Eduardo. He was listening closely to his father, hanging on every word.

     I had no idea how much English he knew, how much he understood.

     I guess he understood at least one word-- "light."

     He turned to me and smiled the small smile from his early recovery. "La luz," he whispered. "La luz."

     I fought back tears and whispered back, "Yes, Eduardo ...la luz."

     Jeffrey “Doc” Waggoner is no longer with us. However, in the years he was a doctor—and, as the story shows, even in the years before that—he left his mark on the hearts and lives of thousands of people. He had a saying that he always turned to when things got especially tough. “Life is what you make it”, he used to say.  For the 69 years that Jeff walked this earth, he made his life one that reflected the very spirit of Christmas. He made his life one of faith, hope and love. 

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