Opinion articles

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Number



September 19, 1990 is a date I’ll never forget.


It was the predicted date of a special arrival.  Even today, I can’t begin to make sense of the symbolism or perhaps the coincidence of the number itself.  For nine long years family, close friends, medical staff, and ‘Josefina’ fought a battle against what began as a silent deceiver and later morphed itself into a venomous demon with a tangible persona all of its own. 


Moments in time remain clear and unclouded just as they were at the time of her nebulous diagnosis.


It was that very diagnosis that shifted relationships and time into a cyclone of appointments, medical bills, worry, sadness, surgeries, guarded encouragement, spiritual questioning, emotional barriers, walls of clinical  caution,  and yes more of that mysterious number – nine. 


Josefina’s medical history was known only by her long-time physician, and yet because of one "confused and aggressive" cell, her history became known to a team of nine wonderful people in the oncology medical profession. 


Men and woman that were like a defense force in her battle; forging ahead alongside her through a hazy trail of uncertainties and outcomes.


She became their leader in her battle. A fight that they were professionally trained to deal with daily. She represented to them, a cancer patient refusing to become a morbid statistic.  


She was a caring and a humanitarian woman diagnosed with cancer. She lived each day with a passion for life and the desire to be remembered for who she before her diagnosis.  Location – only a menial logistic as to the place she was confined to live but not the identifier of how she would choose to live each day. 


Whether she was confined to her bed or hooked to an IV, she still had the desire to live. Weakened by this disease, she was no longer able to garden but was still able to write.  She was no longer able to cook but was able to smile as she was served her meal.  She was not able to help others but with grace was able accept the help she needed. She no longer was able to go to church but she was still able to pray. She adjusted to what she was able to do and not cry about what she no longer could do.


Josefina, armed with courage and the smile, became for her medical army, a bright guiding light into a field of darkness with each follow-up or hospital visit – Her medical team represented to her and our family, not only their God-given gift of knowledge but their endless gift of compassion.


Nine.  Her cancer fighting army line-up read like this: GYN-oncology M.D., Radiation Oncology M.D. , Radiation Technician, Radiation Oncology nurse, Surgeon, Oncology  hospital floor nurse, Cancer Society volunteer, and  Grief Counselor.  


All of them with lives of their own. All of these people possessing personal worries of their own, and all of them displaying an endless dedication. 


To her team, Josefina became so much more than just the medical number that was used to identify her and to her, they had become a tenacious cancer-fighting team. A dedicated group of nine with more than just employee numbers of their own – they had names – Nick, Katub, Barbara, Francisco, Debbie, Gopal, Olivia, Nick, and Joan. Her Nine.


Refusing to let the “C” word be what identified our lives, it managed to become the nine-year battle with nine years of memories – some good, some bad.  When would our prayers be answered? When would the treatments begin to work? Nine years with each day viewed as a blessing and in her slowly fading radiance a painful reminder of days past. 


Nine emergency trips to the hospital, nine blood transfusions and yes in the end,  nine special friends spending long evening hours of a prayerful vigil at her silent bedside. 


She knew she was reaching the end of her journey, and so along with her God it became her time to plan her departure. In the end, she was right – she knew. 


Nine days earlier, Josefina prepared her family by sharing her heart’s prediction, saying: “En nueve dias ya no estare aqui” (in nine days I will no longer be here). As her children sadly listened, she shared her last wishes and plans for her funeral service. She knew that now each minute was a gift.


At dusk quietly and with one last tear streaming down her cheek, she slipped into the state of her departure from this earthly life – her nine-day coma. She had a very special appointment to keep. On that ninth day as I looked out her hospital window,  there were cars racing by on the street below, hospital employees walking hurriedly to work with their coffee mugs, and lives seemed unexplainably unaffected by the pain that surrounded our little corner of the world. I remember saying to myself “how can their lives go on when I feel like mine is ending?”


It was on that beautiful fall morning that I watched the beautiful multi-colored maple leaves slowly drift down from their life-time foundation and onto the cold ground.  I silently counted them in my head, “one, two, three…nine.”


The chatter of people in the hospital hallway distracted me for an instant as I glanced away from the window and over at my two wonderful sisters, who tearfully hugged mama and in a single deep breath – she was gone….she had arrived at her new home…before nine.




Josephine Burguete-Vincioni notes that that she took on the role of caregiver for her parents, uncles, and aunts, all of whom battled cancer. Along with her sisters, who lovingly cared for their loved ones, they all saw transformations that this disease took on their bodies and lives as a whole.  She is now the Hereditary Cancer Assessment Program Clinic Coordinator for the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.