Massachusetts General Hospital in 1941. Photographer Frank O. Branzetti via Wikimedia Commons

Locus of a Friendship

The author of the definitive history of Massachusetts General Hospital, published in May, gives a glimpse of the story behind the story: a web of life-sustaining relationships.
Webster Bull

Lorenzo, a physician, Matt, an OR technician, and Jessica, a medical secretary, meet in the corridors of one of the foremost medical institutions in the USA, where they have started to share the gift of faith in the circumstances of their work. The author of the definitive history of Massachusetts General Hospital, published in May, gives a glimpse of the story behind the story: a web of life-sustaining relationships.

At 1:45 pm each weekday, an unlikely group gathers in the chapel at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Two doctors, a nurse, an anesthesia technician, a medical secretary, and several research scientists enter by ones and twos to take seats in the front row, then rise together to say the Angelus. Afterward, they stand in the corridor outside, comparing notes, sharing laughs. At the center of the group is a slender young doctor from Italy with red hair and a stubbly beard that comes from working double shifts overnight. Sometimes, passersby turn to stare. "We've been known to draw some weird looks from people who can't imagine why we're together," one of them said.

MGH is the third oldest general hospital in the United States and a locus of American medical power and might. The first teaching hospital affiliated with the prestigious Harvard Medical School, it is the largest hospital-based biomedical research facility in the country, with over $600 million in annual funding. My daughter and I recently wrote the bicentennial history of MGH, which was founded by wealthy Bostonians in 1811. I interviewed over 100 world-class doctors, nurses, and researchers, who seem to share two incompatible qualities: massive egos and a common mission.

In three years on site, I never met the likes of the CL School of Community who work and pray together here. These medical workers gather around a 36-year-old anesthesiologist and critical care physician. He's the redhead and the spark plug, a Memor Domini who came to Boston six years ago after a research stint at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. When he first arrived in Maryland eleven years ago, he knew the answers to two questions in English: "What's your name?" (Lorenzo Berra.) "Where are you from?" (Italy.) Once he mixed up the answers and said his name was "Italy," which became his nickname for six months. At MGH, he divides his time between the surgical intensive care unit and an anesthesiology lab.
Lorenzo also leads the School of Community that usually meets here on Tuesday evenings at the dinner hour. Regulars arrive in scrubs direct from the OR. When he is not managing the surgical intensive care unit (SICU), Lorenzo works with Dr. Warren Zapol, former chief of anesthesiology at MGH. Three other CL people work here as well: Ester Spagnolli and Andrea Coppadoro of Italy, and Patricio Leyton of Chile, a convert who met the Movement through Ester and Lorenzo. "Pato" and Ester were married in May 2011 and are settled in Boston. Andrea returned to Italy in July 2011 after a year at MGH.

Matthew O'Brien explained that he, Lorenzo, Jessica Sampson, and Patrick Lynch all work in surgery but seldom work with the same patients at the same time. Jessica is the medical secretary who books the OR, determining which cases and which MGH personnel are assigned to which rooms. As a surgical nurse, Patrick Lynch may rub shoulders in the same OR with Matt O'Brien, anesthesia technician. Meanwhile, in the SICU, Lorenzo attends to patients who are out of surgery but still in danger. So while their companionship in the Movement informs their work and their interactions with each other, "the patient usually has more impact on us as a community than vice versa," according to Matt.

Co-workers are another story. New faces appear at School of Community almost every week. "People around us in the operating rooms are definitely struck by our friendship," Matt says, "It is evident to them that it is based on something tangible." This has opened opportunities to invite people to School of Community and to the CL Medical Conference. A nursing assistant, a surgical-recovery nurse, and a resident in surgery have all been recent invitees to School of Community.

HEARTBREAK. Lives within this small community are influenced as well. Matt O'Brien says he was "raised in a haunted house," where substance abuse and deep dysfunction at every level were the norm. Brought up Catholic, Matt fled to the arms of Evangelicalism and studied for the Protestant ministry at a noted New England seminary while working at MGH to finance his education.

On his final day of theology classes in 2010, Matt's phone rang. His brother had been admitted to the New England Medical Center, another Boston hospital, because of a drug overdose and septic shock. For nearly ten years, Matt had been responsible for overseeing his brother's healthcare. "The experience of this relationship was like being tied to a stone thrown into a lake, a stone that was rapidly sinking to the bottom without anyone to stop it," Matt recalled.

That night, Matt contacted Lorenzo, with whom he had been working in the operating room for three years. Lorenzo noted that for an anesthesiology resident like himself at the time, who must work alone in the OR while the surgeon operates, anesthesia technicians like Matt represent an indispensable support system. "From our interaction at work," Matt said, "I knew that Lorenzo was a Christian and I trusted that I could rely on his prayers. My impression of Lorenzo was that he was a man who had witnessed something beautiful. Whatever it was that was behind his eyes caused him to engage others in a unique way, one that freed him to be truly and entirely present to those before him." Lorenzo offered to accompany Matt to visit his brother.

"IS JESUS HERE?" When they entered the hospital room at New England Medical Center, Matt's brother screamed at him, "Get the hell out of here!" This exposed "all of the heartache and hurt, everything I had prayed would stay buried deep in my past," Matt recalled. Matt left the room and found Lorenzo praying in the corridor. Lorenzo directed Matt's gaze back toward the room and said, "What your brother needs is what we all need. He needs someone to love him. He needs community. He needs Christ. Can you be that for him? Is Jesus here with you now? If He is here, then what is He asking you to do?"

Said Matt, "I stood stunned for a moment, unsure how to respond. Here I was, the theologian, and yet this man, this doctor, was implying that Christ was actually walking around that hospital with us. Was Christ asking something of me here and now?"

Together, the two moved back into the room. Matt recalled, "My brother's surprise was evident. He stopped struggling and he stopped screaming. The turmoil was gone and everything was quiet." Matt's brother wept, "Thank you for not leaving. People always leave. I was afraid, I am afraid. I'm sorry for pushing you away." The situation had changed for the nurses too. From being a "drug addict" they couldn't help, the patient had become somebody's brother, somebody's friend.

"I'd like you to meet my friend Lorenzo," Matt said to his brother. "He came with me to visit you today." Two months later, Lorenzo invited Matt to the CL Medical Conference in New Jersey. Accompanying them was Jessica Sampson.

JESSICA'S STORY. Raised in the Movement as the daughter of Bob and Sharon Sampson, CL responsibles in Boston, Jessica was taking a year off from college and living at home in Acushnet, Massachusetts. After a painful year, she lived in her room, seeing no one, not even her parents.

One day that summer, Jessica snuck down to the kitchen for a snack. Unexpectedly, she ran into Lorenzo, who gave her a hug. Jessica was surprised to find herself talking with him–she didn't like talking with anyone.
Jessica did not return to college in the fall. That October, a young man named Brixton began barging into her room. A drug user living on the streets, Brixton had been taken in by Bob and Sharon (see Traces, Volume 12, No. 4, 2010, pp. 30–33). A month later, Brixton's friend Nick came to visit, and the three young people began hanging out together in Jessica's room.

Paraphrasing Father Giussani, Jessica would say later, "We don't get to pick the way Christ comes into our lives." Her heart was moved by these friends whose need was as great as her own. "Brixton," she said, "couldn't sleep without the TV on." Brixton died of a drug overdose in February 2010. Afterward, Jessica called Lorenzo and said she wanted to talk with him. She began telling him the story of her life, "especially her urgent questions," Lorenzo recalled. "As soon as I heard what she was saying, I told her that our situations were the same. Her questions were my questions."

GOING DEEPER. On her days off, Jessica visited Lorenzo, and soon she was working as his research assistant in his lab, editing his papers and designing figures and illustrations. Lorenzo encouraged her to finish college while beginning to work more steadily at Mass General. Today, with her diploma in hand, she works as a medical secretary in the operating suite. From hiding in her room, she is now "yelling at surgeons," according to her mentor, Lorenzo.

After graduating from the seminary in June of 2010, Matt O'Brien began attending School of Community with Lorenzo and company, while still working in the MGH OR. Lorenzo encouraged Matt to continue following his Protestant faith; to break with his seminary training and the many Protestant friends he had would have been violent. But one day Matt approached Lorenzo and told him he wanted to receive Communion at Mass in Boston's North End. A few days later, he returned to the Catholic Church of his childhood.
Andrea Coppadoro said, "Staying with Lorenzo through School of Community and in the lab, I have seen an interesting way of working with another person, a way not based on convenience or competition. I have realized that the job provides a possibility of going deeper into reality, of understanding what is most important about the work, with its successes and its failures. The job is not the thing that defines our day. I am not defined by the number of research publications I produce but by something else."

WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING. "When you work in a hospital," Lorenzo said, "you know that you are not the answer. A companionship is needed, to remind yourself of what you are doing. I look at what is happening among us and see that it is not only a 'good friendship.' The changes happening in people cannot be explained by good, goal-directed behavior. Jessica was told a thousand times to finish school. What made her change? What made Matt decide to change his life? As I see it, it is always a response to Christ, who comes to us in mysterious ways."
*Webster Bull and his daughter Martha Bull are the authors of the book Something in the Ether.