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Journey to Calcutta: The Doctoring of Mother Teresa

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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“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.

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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.”

Lombardi then opened the sliding glass door to Mother Teresa’s air-conditioned room in the hospital’s intensive-care unit and met for the first time the woman about whom all he had previously known was that “she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she lived in India and that she had dedicated her life to helping the poor.”

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He went through the standard questions and a thorough examination.

“I do remember that the first thing she said to me was, ‘Dr. Lombardi, I will not leave Calcutta until I’m well, and there should be no differences of opinion about my medical care between you and the Indian doctors.’ ”

Disagreement Arose

Inevitably, though, there was, and in that initial disagreement was the last and most crucial hurdle. After several days of treating Mother Teresa with general antibiotics and observing her worsening condition, Lombardi concluded that the infection causing her rising fever was coming from a wire catheter that had been inserted in her left arm and attached to an external heart pacemaker.

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The pacemaker was merely a precaution. It had never been turned on. And such infections are not uncommon, even in Western hospitals. But Mother Teresa’s cardiologists were afraid to remove it because it would be vital to her survival if she went into heart failure, as she had within hours of her admission to the hospital Sept. 5.

“In every other way, the doctors were giving her the best of care,” Lombardi stressed. “All the cultures I would have taken had been obtained. All the blood, stool and urine samples and even abdominal ultrasound had been done.”

Lombardi had deliberately proceeded slowly and cautiously with his colleagues, always trying to avoid even the slightest offense or disagreement. Finally, though, when five days had gone by and the cardiologists still resisted removing the pacemaker, he made his firmest appeal.

‘Did Not Want to See It’

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“I made a presentation showing that ever since the (pacemaker) line had been inserted, her temperature had gone up daily and her white blood count had gone down,” he recalled. “I was telling them the obvious, but they just did not want to see it.

“They were still very nervous about taking the pacemaker out, and that’s when a little politics came into play. I felt I had an obligation to Mother Teresa and, in my heart of hearts, I felt that I knew what the right thing to do was.

“I said, ‘We’ve been together for five days. I’ve gained your confidence.’ I was well aware that I wasn’t under as much intense pressure as they were, because their entire community depended on what they did. And it’s true that I didn’t have as much to lose as they did, but I also felt that I knew what the problem was and I knew how to solve it. So I just kept coming back to the same thing.”

Finally, at 8 p.m. Friday, the pacemaker was removed. Within 24 hours, Mother Teresa’s fever was gone. Within 48 hours, her white blood-cell count was back to normal. And, on Tuesday evening, Lombardi was flying into the sunset, back toward his quiet life in Manhattan.

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‘I Contributed Something’

“I do feel relieved,” he said, lowering the back of his airplane seat with a long sigh. “But it feels like I contributed something. And it was my time to go home. Mother Teresa is in the best of hands. Her heart is the problem now, and her team of cardiologists are as good as any anywhere in the world.”

Did Lombardi fear that a return to routine would be something of a letdown after treating such a world figure?

“No, I feel that every day, I have something to contribute,” he said. “I don’t work on an assembly line, although even then there would be something, I’m sure. I mean, this isn’t like ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I miss my family terribly, and I’m going back to my patients. My patients don’t revere me or anything, but I do care about them.

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“And really, on the whole, it is a good life.”


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