In a bright examination room with a smiling orange octopus painted on the wall, a boy named Omarlin, who suffers from cerebral palsy, bangs violently against the back of his wheelchair. Dr. Ann Carr pats his hand and strokes his back, calming him instantly. “Does he sleep?” she asks Omarlin’s exhausted but attentive mother, Amarilis. Ann hands Omarlin a sippy cup, and he begins to suck noisily.
While Ann examines Omarlin, Amarilis tells me her family’s story: how they immigrated to the United States because they couldn’t get Omarlin the care he needed in their native Dominican Republic; how Philadelphia’s Our Lady of Hope parish has helped them get established in their new home and find English classes. Ann chimes in that they’re trying to get Omarlin into a school suited to his needs, but “we’re getting the runaround,” she says, due to inadequate school district resources and complicated insurance requirements.
Ann spends an hour and a half with Omarlin, his mother and his patient little sister, Isabella. As Amarilis talks, Ann listens with concern. At one point, Amarilis starts to cry, and Ann drops her notes to give her a hug. “Amarilis is an inspiration to me,” Ann says. “She loves her son, no matter what.”
Before noon Ann will see more patients: a baby who isn’t developing on schedule; a toddler suffering from seizures; a little girl with muscular dystrophy, whose desperate father has been struggling to care for her since his wife’s recent death. To witness Ann’s interactions with her patients and their families is to touch the sacred; not only is Christ present in their sorrows and their love, but they have a pediatrician who knows it. For Ann, it’s all about ministering to the suffering Body of Christ.
Ann is a serious person with a clearly serious job: providing medical care to children with disabilities at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia’s inner city.
She is a strikingly tall woman, with thick, curly black hair that frames her pensive, intelligent face. But her eyes are full of fun. And her freezer is full of ice cream.
The oldest of four children born to working-class parents in a Philadelphia Irish immigrant community, Ann remembers watching a film in elementary school about missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer and thinking, “This is what we all should be doing.” That spirit deepened when she came across MARYKNOLL magazine in her grandparents’ home. “Money was tight for them,” says Ann, recalling that sometimes they barely had enough funds to buy coal to heat their home. “Yet there was always a little money to send to Maryknoll.”
In college in the 1980s, she learned about the political upheaval and economic injustices many people were facing at that time in Latin American countries; the heroism of Catholic catechists, pastoral workers, priests and sisters in defending human rights, often at the cost of their lives; and the Gospel imperative to witness to God’s love by serving the poor. When she graduated, she volunteered at a parish in Austin, Texas, helping to provide emergency assistance to families in need. There, she learned Spanish and an appreciation of Mexican culture, with its exuberant celebration of life and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
She attended medical school, dreaming of one day serving overseas with Maryknoll. Over the years, health challenges and family responsibilities prevented her from pursuing that dream. But she has responded wholeheartedly to her call to mission through her work with special needs patients in Philadelphia as well as volunteering at an orphanage in Honduras, where she spends two weeks each year doing medical screening for children, many of whom have been living on the streets.
Ann’s understanding of what it means to be in mission has expanded since she became a Maryknoll affiliate in 1993. “What impressed me about it most was its model of participatory leadership and its emphasis on global solidarity,” she says of the Maryknoll affiliates, whose members are organized into some 50 chapters in their home communities and support each other in their lives of service. Being an affiliate enabled Ann to be part of a Maryknoll team at the U.S.-Mexico border, where she worked for three years in rural clinics on both sides of the border. Twice she has been elected president of the affiliate board.
Dr. Frank McNesby, Ann’s colleague for 10 years at St. Christopher’s (which despite its name, is a secular institution), confirms her sense of mission. “Ann meets families where they’re at,” he says. “If they’re up, she’s joyful and celebratory too; if they’re down, she shares their sorrow. She’s intuitive; she offers the gift of relationship, raising the bar of care for her patients.”
McNesby recalls a panicking mother whose child was emerging from anesthesia. Ann’s phone was “blowing up” with other demands, he says, but “she knew that the place to be was there, present to that mom.” At the end of each day, says McNesby, he and Ann debrief, reminding each other that because of the special needs patients with whom God has entrusted them, “We’re in the presence of mystery.”
In the evenings, Ann relaxes by walking down the road from her home in a rural community outside of Philly to visit a flock of goats. With names like “June Bug,” “Rosebud” and “Sweet Pea,” they crowd around her, hoping for a treat or a scratch between the horns. Ann delights in her barnyard friends, determined to shower attention on each one.
Back at her house, over bowls of chocolate caramel swirl ice cream, Ann explains how her faith informs her work. “If we’re going to build a world based on love and mercy, working with traumatized kids feels so crucial right now, even though the temptation is to turn away. So much of our culture says that you’re not lovable unless you’re beautiful and smart. God’s love for us is so much deeper and so much more mysterious than what we see on the surface. God comes to us as we encounter the face of the other. What our faith says, what mission says, is, ‘Look again, with the eyes of Christ.’ ”
Featured Image: As part of a U.S. parish delegation to El Salvador in 1998, Dr. Ann Carr (center in flowered dress) gave medical care to children. (Courtesy of A. Carr/El Salvador)