Brother Robert Ziobro, S.C., was driving to St. David the King parish when an oncologist called and told him to stop on the side of the road.
“All I could think was: ‘I’m ridden with cancer,’” Brother Robert, 68, recounted. “That’s the first thing that came to my mind.”
But as quickly as he filled with fear, the Brother of the Sacred Heart emptied his soul of despair.
“I have to have faith,” he reminded himself, and then told God, “I put myself in your hands.”
Seconds later, Brother Robert’s act of faith was rewarded by the doctor’s pronouncement that tests showed his lungs were cancer-free. “I can’t find those three nodules,” the doctor said. “You are healed.”
“Can I say ‘miracle?’” Brother Robert asked.
“No, I’m not Catholic,” the doctor joked. “You may use the word ‘healed.’”
Friend in heaven
The director of religious education in Princetown Junction, N.J., is certain his cures are miraculous and due to his intercessor in heaven, Pope John Paul II.
Throughout his recovery, Brother Robert was blessed twice with the relics of Pope John Paul II — once with a piece of his bone and another time with a piece of his hair. He carries a precious gift — a rosary that had been touched to the casket of the beatified pope during his second burial. Not only is Brother Robert himself Polish, but “the kids (I teach) say I look like him,” he said.
He recalled the time he attended a prayer service for religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City during a papal visit. Because Brother Robert knows a little Polish, he attempted to address the Holy Father in their native tongue as he walked down the aisle.
“I was trying to say ‘We welcome you’ in Polish,” Brother Robert chuckled, “And what I said was, ‘Merry Christmas.’” Pope John Paul II responded with his typical good humor and blessed Brother Robert. Now, after Brother Robert’s cures, he considers his fellow Pole “a close friend” in heaven.
In fact, Brother Robert’s story was considered during deliberations for Pope John Paul II’s sainthood cause. However, at a special memorial Mass for the pope attended by a Polish priest in charge of investigating the healings for Rome, the case chosen was a man who had been cured of pancreatic cancer. That case was never verified.
Much to Brother Robert’s dismay, the news of his healing has led some zealous faithful to contact him, requesting his own hair or his own pieces of clothing. “The credit has nothing to do with me,” he insists firmly. “It has everything to do with God and John Paul II.”
Parishioners at St. David told Brother Robert that he looked ashen. Not wanting to bother anyone, it took some convincing to get him to a doctor. Dr. Anthony Chiaramida, his attending physician and a cardiologist, met the reluctant Brother Robert in the emergency room of a New Jersey hospital.
Not only had the patient suffered a heart attack, Chiaramida said, he was severely anemic and losing blood from his gastrointestinal tract.
“This gravely affected his prognosis, since it prevented the use of important therapies for treating a heart attack, which in themselves can cause bleeding,” Chiaramida explained.
Even more horrifically, stage 4 cancer, the cause of the bleeding, was discovered in Brother Robert’s colon.
Dr. Michael J. Nissenblatt, the associate director of oncology at Robert Wood Johnson University oversaw removal of nearly a foot of Brother Robert’s colon on March 25, 2010 — the feast of the Annunciation.
“When I met him after surgery, the cancer had spread to lymph nodes, and so he needed chemotherapy to try and prevent that from coming back,” Nissenblatt said. Brother Robert “went through the chemo with great difficulty” because of heart disease, weight issues, diabetes and infections.
Yet, “We treated each of these problems successfully and we were able to complete his chemotherapy (albeit) a few months later than we would’ve liked,” Nissenblatt said.
A few years passed, and Brother Robert seemed on the mend. But complications of a leg infection and three blood clots revealed that the colon cancer had traveled to his lung.
Accompanied by his pastor, Brother Robert decided to attend a healing service at a nearby parish. A relic of Blessed Pope John Paul II was placed on his chest with prayers of intercession.
Nissenblatt referred his patient to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. During the biopsy, Brother Robert described himself as “in the twilight zone” and “in la-la land.” But through the haze, Brother Robert heard a very puzzled doctor exclaim: “Where the hell are they?” He couldn’t find the three nodules. They were gone.
“I just smiled and I knew it was John Paul II and the Lord that was helping me through this,” Brother Robert said. Four days later, Brother Robert would pull over to the side of the road to hear the words, “You are healed.”
More nodules appeared in his lungs, but after a special procedure and a surgery, Brother Robert made incredible progress. Approximately six weeks ago, he was declared cancer-free.
“He has returned to good health,” Nissenblatt said. “All of his tests are clear, all of his blood tests are clear, all of his CAT scans are normal.”
Is it a miracle?
“I personally think it is,” Nissenblatt said. “This man could easily have died before we would’ve had any shot at his cancer — a good half of those people die before you have a chance to treat them.”
“I believe there was divine intervention,” Chiaramida agrees.
Living his life
In addition to his heavenly friend, countless earthly friends have surrounded Brother Robert. Nearly everywhere he turned, he crossed paths with doctors, nurses, fellow patients and many others who had either been taught or knew someone taught by him in high school.
Nissenblatt has been by Brother Robert’s side from the beginning, and they have become close friends, swapping the Polish pierogi for the oncologist’s challah bread.
“He is very dear. Everyone who meets him loves him,” Nissenblatt said. “He brings an enormous smile, great insight, great personal wisdom and lots of people of all faiths, all creeds, of all races.”
Brother Robert also attributes the prayers of 700 young children at St. David for his healing. He chuckled as he recounted some of the get-well wishes he received during his recovery. One rendition depicted him crucified on a cross. “I’m not sure she quite understood what was happening to me,” he said.
Another frankly asked, “When are you coming back? No one else gives us lollipops.”
“He’s very much like a large, big bald Santa Claus,” Nissenblatt said. “He’s just a lovely human being.”
Brother Robert believes he is still here for a reason and that by sharing his story he can give hope to others suffering from cancer. He prays every day for his doctors, that God blesses their gifts of healing.
“In this whole plan, God is at work,” he reflected. “Whatever I was sent here to do hasn’t been accomplished yet.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.