Once she was strong enough, Minj walked next to her mother on construction sites with stones in a basket on her head. Together they earned enough for tuition, books and pencils. In 1945, when the war ended, Minj was 12 and had finished seventh grade, but her ambition to study began to cause problems. Here she was, a young girl, neither pliable enough to be married off nor smart enough to get out of her village, so she eventually ran away from home and found her way to Mokama.
When she arrived, Minj remembered those precious days at school, watching the nurses taking care of the boarding schools. She could see that same ability and determination in these American women. She decided to stay. Almost immediately Minj became essential to the sisters’ work. When someone showed up at the pharmacy with symptoms the sisters couldn’t comprehend, she translated. When they got the first calls to go into the village to give birth to a baby, she went with them.
At the end of January, patients were already queuing for treatment. But the sisters still had no doctor of their own. Veeneman wrote letters to missions, hospitals and medical schools across India to find one. The opening date was set for July 19. “Please,” she wrote in a letter to her family at home, “double your prayers that we will have a doctor by then.”
On July 24, 1948, days after the hospital opened, a young doctor walked into the mission. Skinny, strong and quiet, with thick hair combed into a stylish wave, Eric Lazaro was not their first choice. The same day he accepted their offer, Veeneman received a letter from a woman who responded to the same ad in the newspaper. “I am only sorry that we were not the first to get the female doctor, because that is what is most needed in our part of the country,” Veeneman writes in a letter to the mother house. But he was as good a replacement as they were likely to find.
Lazaro was born in 1921 into an Anglo-Indian family. When he was 6, his mother died, possibly of tuberculosis. Her death destroyed their young family. His widowed father, a midwife, drank a lot and, unable to care for his son, sent him to live on the forbearance of his relatives. Once he finished high school, Lazaro entered medical school, scraping together just enough money to pay his fees. When he finished, Lazaro was among the millions who had drifted after the end of the war but before independence. Mokama was out of place, but he was a doctor with no experience, and he was willing to leave everything else behind.
As soon as the hospital was officially opened, patients came in every day, a flood of people with cholera and malaria and unspecified fevers, men with infected wounds and women giving birth. The annals of the mission and the letters home from the sisters, so homesick at first—Veeneman sometimes wept when reading letters from the order’s headquarters in Kentucky—were instead filled with accounts of the people who went to the hospital, whether she lived or died, and the occasional novelty of a wealthy patient arriving by car or summoning a doctor and nurse for an elephant’s house call.
The stock of drugs and equipment the sisters brought with them as cargo—antibiotics, penicillin, painkillers, bandages, antiseptics—usually sufficed to treat the most common illnesses and injuries. But at times they could do little but act as witnesses, for the woman gripped by a psychotic episode or the baby in the final stages of dehydration.