Franz Pantoja. 6/27/85 – 6/11/16
Franz doesn’t need another eulogy. Franz is fine now – in a better place even if it seems he left this one far too soon. The world may not need another eulogy either – there have been many and there will be more – but I need to write one.
It’s the only way I know how to grieve from this far away. So while we don’t need another eulogy, we could sure use another Franz. Here’s why.
I first met Franz in 2012 on a MMi (Medical Ministry International) surgical project to San Juan, Bolivia. I was directing my first project and he was fresh out of medical school, joining a group of his friends as they volunteered to serve the rural poor in their own country. At the time, he intended it to be a temporary commitment while he decided upon a specialty. He barely spoke any English at the time, and I still barely speak any Spanish, but I still got to know Franz in ways that transcend language. Here was a young man who could love, laugh, serve and befriend without reservation. You will hear him described in many ways, but shallow and selfish will never be among them.
It was no surprise then to see Franz again, just 10 months later, on our next project. Francis, his mentor, had advised him to learn English and it was clear that he had been working on this. (I wish I could say the same about myself and learning Spanish.) He was also starting to take on directorial responsibilities of his own – Francis was grooming him (Franz is always well-groomed) to lead teams of his own. It was also clear that Franz, along with his closest friends, had been bitten by something. They had developed an infectious, chronic, and exhausting condition called habitual volunteerism. Though he laughed a lot (“jajajajaja”), it was serious. It would cost him much in terms of time (as many as 20 weeks per year), lost income, lost sleep, and altered career plans. He coped by deepening his faith and his friendships.
As Franz became increasingly committed to his work with MMi, he knew it would take its toll on his body. Franz had always been overweight and he knew that needed to change. He made some dramatic changes to his diet and his lifestyle. He asked his friends to help him sustain those changes. He even started working part-time at a diabetes and obesity clinic where he would be constantly reminded to take his own advice. The changes worked. Over the course of three years, his body was transformed. He became an inspiration to patients who shared the same struggles and to doctors who sometimes wonder if such transformations are truly possible or sustainable. He became a champion of health and wellness in a city where a rising middle class would need such champions. He was even on TV from time to time, telling his story and encouraging others to value their health.
Even amidst his growing responsibilities at the clinic, Franz remained committed to serving his poorest countrymen with MMi. In April 2013, he served as the sole project director for my first trip to San Carlos. He would serve in this same capacity on my next six projects, as well as many others in-between. He had become my right-hand man – both my boss and my servant, and now one of my closest friends.
It is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to watch a close friend work so hard (harder than I could ever hope to work) towards a purpose that we both hold dear. From early in the morning until late at night, through sweltering humidity and pouring rains, on muddy roads, over swelling rivers, in mountains and in jungles – nothing would stop Franz from serving. He could simultaneously attend to a long line of ailing and anxious Bolivian villagers and to a whole team of needy American tourists. He could multi-task like no other, yet make any individual feel as if they were the only person that mattered. He would quickly get to know our patients’ names and faces. He would be the one they could reach and speak to, even after our teams were long gone.
Did he ever get stressed out? Of course he did. We all did. But even amidst such pressure, he would not say an unkind word, brush off someone’s concern, ignore someone’s request, or fail to laugh at someone’s joke. He would continue to serve amidst his own fatigue and discomfort, and in doing so could inspire everyone else to do likewise. He was soft-spoken, his voice barely audible at times, but his actions and demeanor could spread God’s mercy with a megaphone.
Back in Santa Cruz, Franz maintained quite an active social life. If you followed his Facebook feed, he was always out with friends, maintaining relationships from medical school and making new friends with ease. Always with him were a few of his MMi companions. He may have been single, but he was never alone. But remember, Franz had an infectious condition – one you could catch by hanging out with him. Before they would know it, he’d have them joining him on Monday night, learning about Jesus and how to emulate Him by serving the poor and healing the sick.
Franz was only 31 years old, but he had truly lived more and loved more than most people twice his age. While we are not sure exactly what heart condition ended his life so soon, we do know the condition of his heart that made his life so full. He loved as if it were his purpose. He loved as if it were his solemn duty and also his greatest joy. Franz was a true disciple of his Lord, Jesus Christ. By disciple, I mean one who learns from and seeks to emulate his teacher. Franz loved a lot like Jesus loved. And just as with Jesus, maybe the best way to remember him is to be like him and invite others to do the same.
Rest in peace, Franz.