My older sister decided to serve a mission around the same time that I chose to leave the Mormon Church. This fact caused a lot of tension in my household, as my father vacillated between picking fights with his apostate daughter and bragging about his dutiful BYU-educated daughter. The spring of my senior year was not easy as I prepared to head off to college while my sister prepared to go on her mission in Brazil.
A few months after my sister left for her mission, she started e-mailing me. This was in the fall of 2003 and from what I gathered, she had been granted special permission to communicate with me via e-mail. Her primary form of communication, along with most of the other missionaries in her area, was via conventional snail mail. In her e-mails, my sister talked a lot about her faith in the Mormon Church, with an occasional snippet of her everyday life. From the rare glimpses of her life that she revealed, I gathered that she was living in unsanitary housing, complete with leaking roof and faulty plumbing, and subsisting on a diet of rice and beans. She also asked me to keep the details of her housing situation a secret from our parents. Every once in a while, she would write to my parents begging for money; her fair skin was peeling due to the harsh sun and she couldn’t afford to buy sunscreen.
I have always struggled to communicate with my sister; we are two very different people and I always felt that she judged me. This communication barrier was only exacerbated by our differences in belief; the bulk of my sister’s e-mails were centered around bearing her testimony to me of the truth of the Gospel. I tried to write like a good sister but I also struggled to contain my frustration. I never was able to shake off the suspicion that my sister’s primary motivation in writing was to try and re-convert me to Mormonism. E-mails with my sister were intermittent as she completed her mission. She came back from Brazil eighteen months later a little thinner and a little tanner than before.
Not long after returning, my sister started getting sick; she was dizzy and couldn’t keep food down. She ended up in the emergency room a couple of times, where the doctors assumed the problem was an ulcer. But the ulcer medication didn’t work and my sister kept getting sicker. Eventually, after three or four months of unsuccessful treatments, the doctors discovered the real cause. My sister had pericarditis, which is when the sac surrounding the heart (the pericardium) gets inflamed. Her pericardium had been rubbing against the heart and fluid had started to build up, to the point that it was pressing against her stomach and restricting her heart’s function.
Words cannot describe my horror when I first saw my sister after coming home for Christmas break that year. Her condition had worsened to the point that she could no longer get out of bed. Always thin, she looked like a Holocaust victim; her wrists stuck out at odd angles and I could count each rib. For months she had been unable to keep solid food down and was now subsisting on a diet of Ensure. Her blood pressure hovered around 70/40 as her heart struggled to pump blood to the rest of her body. My sister’s surgery was scheduled for the day after Christmas; the surgeons were planning to go in, remove the excess fluid, and determine if the cause was congenital or not.
My sister’s surgery was a success. The doctors have yet to discover the exact cause of her condition. Their suspicion is that she picked up a virus while living in Brazil. Now that I have learned more about the Mormon Church’s treatment of missionaries --- their disregard for missionaries’ physical and mental health, their scrimping on costs at the expense of missionaries’ well-being, their blatant ignorance of a country’s culture --- I find myself wondering just how badly my sister’s heart was damaged during her mission to Brazil.
Note: If you are interested in reading more about the everyday life of Mormon missionaries, I highly recommend the book "Heaven Up Here" by John K Williams, which is a very honest and moving account of the author’s years as a Mormon missionary in Bolivia.