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Keeping Connected: Hillary’s Story

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Today’s post is an excerpt from Strong Fathers, Strong Daughterson the subject of how you, Dad, can stay connected with your daughter.  For more on how to do this (including easy to do actionable items), try Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: The 30 Day Challenge.

When Elliot was seventy years old, he retired from his thriving practice of general surgery. He didn’t like retirement. He was neither a golfer nor a fisherman. He didn’t like tinkering around the house. So, in his boredom, at age seventy, he asked his forty-six year old daughter Hillary, also a physician, to accompany him on a two-week trip to Nicaragua. She agreed.

When the two of them arrived in Nicaragua, Elliot was beaming. Hillary was nervous about dirty toilets, undrinkable water, and annoying bugs, but Elliot was oblivious to them. She worried about how he was deal with the heat, how he might get sick with a tropical disease, or how he might break an arm or a leg and have to be evacuated-somehow-to the United State. But Elliot didn’t worry at all.

After a few days of collecting supplies and traveling deep into the countryside, they and their team set up a clinic where they could evaluate patients. If any needed surgery, they’d drive them to the nearest hospital and perform the operation.

One woman had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her uterus. Two young men had inguinal hernias; another had a testicular mass. Elliot loved using his broken Spanish and diagnosing his patients. He was exhilarated.

This was before he saw the “hospital.” Hillary and a nurse well versed in anesthesia accompanied him. As they drove up the dirt road to the hospital, Elliot gasped. The building was abandoned. There was no electricity, though at least there was running water. The bus driver politely ushered him through a doorless entryway into an eight-by-eleven foot room with a single window. A steel operating table sat in the middle of the room. A large lamp hung above it. It has no bulb and its glass casing was shattered. Elliot began to sweat.

In the doorway, the first patient–the man with the hernia–waited.

Hillary saw her father’s ashen face. She took a deep breath and said , “Come on, Dad, you can do this. Hernias are easy, That’s what you’ve always told me. We can get this done.” She gestured to the nurse, who began setting up her station of medicines and portable oxygen.

“It’s filthy. What about infection? This poor man will die of an infection.”

“No, Dad. We’ll take it one step at a time. I’ve got IV meds, IV fluid and some pain meds. I’ll take care of all that. You just operate.”

Hillary motioned for the young man to wait a few more minutes while they got everything prepared. She wiped the table and pulled the sterile instruments, gowns, and drapes from her trunk. She felt herself trembling. The room was hot and humid.

But they proceeded. Elliot repaired his first patient’s hernia. Then he fixed another. Then he removed the woman’s tumor and the man’s testicular mass. Every few minutes he wiped his sweating brow on his sleeve. It broke sterile code, but he has no choice. He had to see. There was no air conditioning, and several times, Elliot thought he would pass out. Hillary watched him and watched his patients. After three days of surgery and twelve patients–half of whom developed infections or had uncontrollable pain–Elliot had had enough.

He sat with the rest of the team at dinner, choking down canned green beans and warm potatoes. Clean water was running low.

“I’m done,” he announced. “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t operate well. My patients are getting infections and I’m doing them more harm than good.”

Elliot was a Texan, six-feet two. He began to cry.

But them team told him not to quit. Hillary in particular encouraged her father, saying that although she wasn’t a surgeon, she knew enough to assist him, especially when he felt he was tired and needed to sit down.

So, Elliot, working side by side with his daughter, finished the two-week medical trip. By the end, he was emotionally and physically exhausted. On the plane back to the United States he was too tired to talk.

Hillary will tell you now, since her father’s death, that the trip made their relationship extraordinarily close. As a kid, she had given her parents trouble. But she knew her father was a good man, a very good man, and, especially after their work together in Nicaragua, she felt privileged to have lived her life with him. She has seen him stretching himself to the utmost to help others. She has helped him–and he had wanted her there at his side. “He knew me and he loved me. What more could I ask for in a dad?”

Your daughter needs to see you at your best and your worst, just like Hillary saw her father when he was challenged. That is a connection that lasts lifetimes.



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