John Cibenko: On a mission to break down borders

“Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it. ” — David Star Jordan (1851-1931), educator, author, peace activist

This week’s Portrait is certainly doing it. Named Nurse of the Year by the New York Times for his humanitarian service, Jefferson University Hospital nurse John Cibenko spends most of his free time overseas working with Doctors Without Borders, helping perform joint replacements for poor patients in Nepal and teaching patient protocols to Kenyan nurses.


PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. JC: I’m originally from the Bucks County area. I went to Council Rock High School.

PGN: Any siblings? JC: I’m the youngest of four — two sisters and a brother.

PGN: Tell me about growing up there. JC: We had a typical upper-middle-class upbringing. I played sports and did theater, I sang in the choir and participated in a number of clubs. I was pretty well-liked by everyone. I was a friend to many and friend of those who didn’t have any friends.

PGN: What sports did you play? JC: I played tennis, rugby and soccer.

PGN: What do the parents do? JC: My dad works in health-care administration and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.

PGN: Where did you get your humanitarian gene? JC: It was always instilled in me from a very young age. My parents were both very religious so we would do a lot of things with our church groups.

PGN: What’s the first volunteer gig you ever remember doing? JC: Volunteering at a homeless shelter in North Philly around the holidays. They had a pancake breakfast and we were one of the families that helped put it on. I was in charge of pouring the orange juice and waiting and clearing tables.

PGN: Rugby’s a rough sport. What was your worst injury? JC: I played for the Gryphons team here in Philadelphia and, for a while when I lived in D.C., I played for the Renegades. I fractured my ankle playing for them and, after that, I decided no more rugby for me. [Laughs.] It’s hard to recover from injuries as you get older and that sport is very demanding! There’s no padding and I just don’t want to risk it. PGN: Now that you’re not playing rugby, what do you do in your spare time for fun? JC: I love spending time with friends and family. My nieces and nephews are very important to me. I also volunteer in various soup kitchens in our area. Someone was listening to all the work that I’ve been doing around the world and they asked me, “But what do you do in your own community?” I’ve been challenged now to do something locally, so I’ve started working at two soup kitchens and a clinic.

PGN: So tell me a little bit about your job and some of the volunteer work you do. JC: Well, I just got back from doing some work in Vietnam with Operation Walk Chicago. It’s a nonprofit organization that does total joint replacements for people in third-world countries. We also go to hospitals and teach them how to do the work after we leave. I was there for 10 days. I also do work with Cure International and Doctors Without Borders.

PGN: What place surprised you the most? JC: Vietnam. It was my most recent trip and the most poignant. It was astounding to see how much that country still is reeling from the war that we fought there. It was very powerful to go there and work on patients who were affected by the actions of the country where I come from. At the end of the week, we had a little ceremony with all the patients that we worked on. One of them got up and said, “You’ve really changed my mind about how I felt about Americans and what America is.” Even though that was not our intention, it was like, “Wow, it’s pretty cool that we’re doing this.” I realized how much our actions as a country affect people all over the world. It made me more thoughtful over every-day decisions. I realize that my beliefs do count, my vote does matter. It really does. In the grand scheme of things, we do make a difference.

PGN: I think of all the people who died in Iraq when we went after Saddam Hussein after Osama bin Laden attacked us … what the repercussions will be for years there. JC: Yeah, we’ve been out of Vietnam for 37 years and that country still is affected by it every day. It was interesting to learn their view of us.

PGN: What other places have you been? JC: Gosh, all over the place. I’ve been to East Africa, South Africa, Botswana, Western Africa, Ghana, Northern Africa, Ethiopia doing joint replacements, and Southeast Asia, Indonesia, South America, Central America and Russia.

PGN: Scariest moment abroad? JC: When I was still in high school, my mother and I did a trip to Kenya. I’d always wanted to work in an orphanage there so when I was a junior, my mother took me over with our church group. It was scary because we went right after the U.S. Embassy was bombed in Nairobi. It was a very intense period of unrest in the city, a frightening feeling in the air. That was the first time I had done a humanitarian mission overseas. The situation could’ve gone either way, but it was a good trip because afterwards I felt that if I could survive that, I could do anything!

PGN: Who was a patient, either here or abroad, who really moved you? JC: Gosh, there are so many.

PGN:[Laughs.] How about you pick two? JC: Well, the first would again be from this last trip to Vietnam. There was a guy who was carried in by his wife. She’d been carrying him for the last 10 years. In Vietnam, people usually take someone to the hospital to let them die, unlike here where we go to the hospital to get well. So people there associate the hospital with death or something negative. He wasn’t doing so well and she was having back problems and having a hard time carrying him, so he assumed his wife was taking him to the hospital to die. Little did he know, she was taking him to us so he could have an operation that would change his life. It was so touching to be a part of it and watch the whole story unravel. He did very well and wound up walking out of the hospital on his own. The second was when I lived in Kenya. I stayed there for a little less than two years working in a children’s orthopedic hospital. There was a patient named Kevin whom I got really close to. He had spina bifida and couldn’t walk. He’d been in a wheelchair his entire life. He developed tuberculosis in his spine and there wasn’t much we could do for him, but learning about his every-day life after I got close to him and seeing how hard it was for him really made me empathetic. Even though I’ll never really know what it feels like to be disabled or in a wheelchair, through Kevin I got a pretty good idea and it’s helped me to relate to my patients better.

PGN: What was a fun memory from your time living in Kenya? JC: It was a great time. Learning to be very creative in the way you treated the patients, having a good deal of autonomy and being able to think for yourself. Really truly making the decisions on your own and building relationships with the other staff members, the other nurses. Teaching was a ton of fun too. I love to teach.

PGN: I’d imagine there was a lot of music. JC: Oh, yes. There was lots of music, lots of dance, a lot of artistic expression. I met a ton of artists there, got to dance with the Masai tribe members. We went up to a really remote part of Northern Africa where I was the first white person a lot of the people there had ever seen. [Laughs.] That was pretty cool!

PGN: So going back to you, were you good at the game “Operation” when you were a kid? JC: No! That game frustrated me! [Laughs.] It’s actually harder than doing a real operation! I like playing Battleship and a card game named Rack-O. I played canasta with my grandmother and Parcheesi.

PGN: Wow, I forgot all about Parcheesi. I used to love playing that as a kid. I’ll have to see if I can find one. JC: Yeah, it’s great. And of course I also played Jenga. We played that a lot in Africa. One of the tribes nearby was really good at making things, so we taught them how to play Jenga and they started making their own games out of the acacia wood and selling them. If you go over there now, you can buy African Jenga games made out of acacia, you know, those beautiful trees with the thorns that you think of when you picture the African Sahara.

PGN: I read that you once made 27 trips overseas in one year. JC: No, possibly in one year’s time, but most likely from one year into another. I just got back from London, where I was speaking at a symposium, and that was trip number 12 for this year.

PGN: A random question. What was the most mischievous thing you did as a child? [Laughs.] I can’t let you completely be a golden boy here. JC: My brother and I and two of our friends almost burned down the woods across from our house! We were playing with fire and it was the middle of the summer so all the little twigs and things were dry. Some of the nearby brush caught fire and we had to run home and call the fire department. It was contained, and I think it probably would’ve just burned out on its own, but we got scared. We got in big-time trouble for that one. [Laughs.] I guess you could call that mischievous.

PGN: Oldest piece of clothing you own? JC: I had meningitis when I was an infant, they didn’t expect me to live. I was in an incubator for about two weeks and my foot was the only thing my mother was allowed to touch. My mother kept the sock that I was wearing and I have it to this day. PGN: Who would you want to take to the prom? JC: Tim McGraw! Or Ricky Martin.

PGN: Muy caliente! Hey, do you speak any languages? JC: English! I can actually understand a little Swahili, but I don’t really speak it.

PGN: You came from a religious family: Was coming out hard? JC: It was. It still is in some ways. Being brought up as a Christian, you’re taught that being gay is wrong, it’s not biblical. So when you have certain feelings, it’s a real struggle inside. You have to deny everything you’ve been taught your whole life. [Sighs.] It was really tough. I actually came out to my parents because a relationship that I was in had ended. I was despondent and didn’t know who to turn to. I was hurting on the inside because of the break-up and I was having conflict within myself: Is this right? I’ve always felt this way but do I choose this, what should I do? They were very loving through the whole thing. They may not completely understand or accept it, but I’ll always be their son. It’s still hard for me, though, because all my siblings are married and having children already and I’m not there yet. Sometimes I think, Gosh, if I were straight I would probably already have my own family, so it’s bittersweet.

PGN: Well, there’s still plenty of time for that. It sounds like now you’re just a little bit busy. JC: There is a lot of good that I have done in my life and I am still a Christian person, though it can be difficult considering the rhetoric of the church sometimes. But I’m gay, so what the heck!

PGN: When did you come out? JC: I’ve known since about fourth grade, when I had a crush on my gym teacher, but I came out to the family about nine years ago. When my first relationship ended, I didn’t know who to turn to, it seemed like the end of the world. I had to tell my parents because I wasn’t in a safe place, I had thoughts of … well, you know, ending it. I needed to get help and I did.

PGN: Did you hear a lot of antigay rhetoric at the church when you were a kid? JC: Not really, it was never specifically addressed. I just knew it was “wrong.” And that the Bible was against man lying with man, that sort of thing. But I have to tell you, the church my parents went to is full of very loving people, they are not judgmental at all. In fact, they helped me through when I was having suicidal thoughts. I wouldn’t wish that anguish on anyone — whether you were gay, straight or whatever. But I got through it, and here I am!

PGN: And now that you’re an out proud gay man, wearing nail polish with your scrubs, what advice would you give? Or just as a man who’s traveled the world? JC: Humility is important. I don’t always possess as much as I should, but going on these trips really teaches you to put other people before yourself, and that’s really something that I’ve made as a goal for myself. Sometimes I probably should take care of myself a little bit more, but I find such joy in helping others. When you find something that makes you so happy, you should do it.

PGN: When you come back from a place where people have so little, do you find that you appreciate more, or do you get frustrated at how little other people appreciate what they have? JC: A little of both. [Laughs.] I find myself saying, “Bless their little hearts for they don’t know!” It’s funny, when you do a lot of traveling you really realize how influential we are. There really is United States and then there’s the rest of the world. There’s no Europe, Asia — there’s the U.S. and then everything else. It’s tough when I’m places and see that they don’t have the opportunities that we have, some of the resources that we have and some of the every-day conveniences that we enjoy. That being said, our way is not always the best way. With us, everything’s forward, everything’s progressive, we are always in a rush to get ahead, we don’t take the time to set things aside. I sometimes feel sorry for people when I see them acting like that and think, You haven’t seen the world, you haven’t seen the way other people think about things, this is all you know. We are the most powerful, but we’re not always the most efficient. There’s still a lot we can learn from other countries.

PGN: Perhaps that’s where some of that humility quality could help us. JC: Indeed!

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