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December 1st, 2013
09:37 AM ET

The real-life angels of mercy

Opinion by Kerry Egan, special to CNN

(CNN)– I got pulled over on my way to work recently. I was late and I was speeding, but when the officer saw the hospice ID around my neck, with the word "chaplain" all in capital letters, she gave me just a warning.

"You're an angel," she said. "Anybody who takes care of the dying must be an angel."

Because I'm a hospice chaplain, I hear that pretty frequently. I can guarantee you I'm not an angel. I'm a flawed and struggling human, and I deserved that ticket. I also don't take care of the dying, not really.

Because I have many patients, I usually only get to visit each patient twice a month, maybe once a week. In rare cases, I'll visit daily, but only for an hour or so. It's the dying person's family that truly takes care of him or her.

While hospice aides, nurses, social workers, and chaplains go into the homes of patients to offer support, education, and help, they cannot be there 24 hours a day, and they don't do the bulk of the caregiving.

More than 65 million Americans are caregivers for dying, sick, and disabled family members, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving, and about 1.6 million people are cared for by hospice programs each year.

While I always think it's nice that people call hospice workers like me “angels,” in some ways that lessens what caring for the dying actually means. I've seen what that caregiving work is like when I've been in patients' homes.

Let's be truly honest here it can be exhausting, heartbreaking, and bone-crushing, especially if the disease process lasts for years.

I've watched those hospice families spoon food into mouths, and clean it up when it's spit out. I've seen them hold cups of water to flaking, yellow lips.

I've watched them turn their mothers or husbands in bed, the patients' heavy flesh rolling through their exertions and sweat. I've sat with them when they come out of the bedroom, after having cleaned the diarrhea off their fathers' or wives' backs.

I've seen them stooped over, back in a spasm from having lifted someone too heavy to lift alone.

To be the caregiver to someone who is dying is probably the most difficult work in the world.

But if we believe that the work we are called to do on this earth is to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, then the families who care for the chronically ill and dying have done that with an intensity an all-encompassing, daily, hourly, by-the-minute intensity that is like nothing else.

For what else is the work of caring for the dying other than feeding, giving drink, bathing and clothing, and comforting the sick?

And if we believe that whatsoever we do, for even the least of people, we do for God, then the work that caregivers do is the most sacred work. More so, I think, than any missionary in a far-off place, more than a preacher in a pulpit, more than a theologian in a library, and, I can tell you with absolute certainty, more than a hospice chaplain.

That it is holy work doesn't make it lovely, or easy.

Being a caregiver might be the hardest work in the world, but the world doesn't seem to know it. Families caring for their sick are not held up as heroes. They don't get out of speeding tickets because of their job title.

People say that those who work with the dying must be angels. I think they mean that they can't imagine that they could do such physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding work.

They think it must take the strength of angels to do such work, knowing that it ends in grief. It really does seem almost superhuman sometimes.

Ultimately, the problem with calling caregivers angels is that it implies that they don't need help. If they don't need help, we don't have to step up and offer it.

A patient's husband once told me that the old friends of his wife, a woman who had been bed-bound for eight years, stop him in the grocery store and post office all the time. They squeeze his hands and murmur softly to tell him that they are praying for her and that they love her.

"That's a cop-out! They pray because it's easy!" he shouted as tears slid down his cheeks and his body shook with grief and anger and abandonment. "She doesn't need your prayers. She needs you to come visit her!"

Too often, the dying and their caregivers are left alone and isolated, forgotten by the world that goes on with its business. Sometimes love is action. Sometimes love is the diaper change, the crushed pills in applesauce, the sponge bath. Sometimes love is taking care of someone when we hate it all.

If you've been a caregiver, you may have regrets. You may think, "If only I had done it differently." "If only I had noticed sooner." "If only I had been more patient." You may have been tired, and you may have been resentful. You may have been angry. You may have lost your faith. You may have been relieved when your loved one died, and then felt terrible guilt over that relief.

I have heard these things dozens of times over.

But remember that you did this work, not with the strength of angels, not with the unending energy of the supernatural, but with the limitations and weakness of a human being.

Maybe that's why the instructions are so simple, really. We don't need to take expensive mission trips around the world. We don't need to plan for months. We don't need special training. That bed-bound patient and her husband didn't need angels. They needed people.

When I was driving home from college with my mother and very ill father, we got a flat tire as darkness fell in the mountains in Virginia.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an elderly man in a tow truck showed up and changed the tire, accepting no payment or thanks.

At the time I thought he must be an angel. I couldn't imagine, straight out of college at 22 years old, that any person could be so willing to help another, with no reward or benefit to himself. And, because I thought he was an angel, I didn't see what he was doing as the kind of thing I should or could do myself.

But now I know better.

The hospice families, who cared for and loved and then let go of the ones they loved, have taught me that the human heart can be as big as the ocean, and that the work that God calls us to to take care of each other happens every moment in every place. We do not need to be angels to do it.

Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in South Carolina and author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago." The views expressed in this column belong to Egan. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Death • Ethics • Faith • Heaven • Opinion

soundoff (340 Responses)
  1. Kari

    Kerry, Thank you for a beautiful and insightful essay. I'm currently going through the "I wonder how I could have been a better caregiver..what could I have done differently..." – questioning why I couldn't have been cheerier, more creative, more supportive, and a dozen other qualities while I was caring for a dying family member. I'll try to remember your words. They were comforting. I was the first of my friends to go through this process. I plan to be there for other friends and family as they go through this passage. I now know how to help the practical aspects of caregiving, and will be able to help others with that. Now with resources such as your essay, I think I'll be able to help with the emotional support, too.

    January 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm |
  2. Angelina

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    December 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  3. D Cooper

    One of the best articles that has ever been posted on the belief blog. Fantastic!

    December 3, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  4. Angela

    I know this:
    When I need help, I turn to Christians, not atheists.
    There must be something good about Christians that I would turn to them in my times of need instead of atheists.
    Christians are constantly available to help people in need, 24/7.
    I am always grateful for the help that they give me.
    All in all, Christians are good people.
    They are not the monsters that militant atheists make them out to be.

    December 3, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • WASP

      yeah i would turn to them as well...........even being an atheist.
      namely because they are the biggest su/ckers out there.

      December 3, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • doobzz

      All christians are good and will get up at 4 am to take me to the airport.

      All atheists are bad and won't help anyone ever.

      You must have a brush about six feet wide to believe that. Personally, if I was in need, I'd go the the people who won't force me listen to their delusions before they'll give me a bowl of soup.

      December 3, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Felix Sinclair

      That's funny.

      December 3, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Snow

      Christians help because they hope to make brownie points with god for after death paradise

      Atheists help people because they want to help them and expect nothing in return..

      You need to rethink your faith.

      December 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
      • taffylinden

        You might rethink your own philosophy there, Snow. I agree wholeheartedly that there are many caring, compassionate atheists and many cold-hearted, judgmental Christians, but it's a little simplistic to say all atheists act out of goodness of heart, while all Christians hope to score points on some celestial scoreboard. The fact is, almost all of us–atheists, agnostics, deists, Christians, Muslims, Hindi, Buddhists, Jews, etc–help because we're compassionate, empathetic people. Some may frame that compassion and find meaning in it through their religious beliefs, but that doesn't diminish their goodness. Maybe we need a little less of all this sibling rivalry and a little more mutual acceptance and respect.

        December 3, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
        • Saraswati

          The evidence actually indicates compassion is a bigger motivator for atheists:

          http://www.livescience.com/20005-atheists-motivated-compassion.html

          People in helping professions such as psychology, social work, advocacy or basic needs non-profit work are much more likely to be atheist than the general public. Sure, many Christians volunteer a few hours a week, but atheists are more likely to dedicate thei lives to helping.

          December 8, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • Mark

      I go to the person with the best knowledge of the thing I'm having a problem with.
      I don't ask their beliefs.
      You are amazingly small-minded, and you are here to troll.

      December 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
      • Jenna Jameson

        Wow, Mark. What a large mind you have.

        December 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
        • Mark

          Much larger than the OP's.

          December 5, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  5. Robert Brown

    The problem for some atheists is that they require natural evidence of what believers understand to be a spiritual being. Some are willing to accept spiritual evidence as long as that evidence meets the same criteria as natural evidence. Others will accept a sign, like God appearing or speaking to many people at the same time.
    I’m not a scientist, but if you are going to evaluate a hypothesis and the procedures are set forth, you follow those and either get the same result, or not. So, if I say, if you do a, b, and c, the result will be z, anyone can check to see if I’m correct or incorrect. I think this demand for evidence before being willing to test the hypothesis is either intentionally or unwittingly dishonest, because it seems to me that the evidence would be the result.

    December 3, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • WASP

      @ROBERT: "spiritual being" <--- prove this exsits then we can talk.

      December 3, 2013 at 10:34 am |
      • Angela

        We've already been over this.
        Things can exist without having any substance to them.
        They are called abstract nouns.

        December 3, 2013 at 10:40 am |
        • Alias

          SO, if some of your 'abstract nouns' exist, how does that prove they all do?

          December 3, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
        • Snow

          say you are hungry.. can I send you abstract food thoughts with my mind to ease your hunger? Are you receiving a 4 course meal as you are reading this?

          easy way of looking is, some things make sense. Some things don't. You need blind faith to believe in things that don't make sense. you call them "abstract nouns" . I call them BS.

          December 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Angela

      It opens up the possibility.

      December 3, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Bob

      Robert Brown, that's just another of your typical cowardly dodges. You've been caught many times here at being unable to produce evidence for your crazy beliefs despite your claims to the contrary,and your dodges are what you think to be a way out. Fail. Out with the evidence, or hush already if you have none.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      December 3, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
      • Caritas

        Puh-Leaz! Everybody! This was a lovely compassionate article. Let's acknowledge that instead of starting the endless debate over atheism versus theism and especially, who is " better" or "kinder" or "more this or that"!?

        Regardless of where you are on the belief spectrum, if you are thinking about such things, you aren't doing what needs to be done, or are doing it for the wrong reasons. Let us agree we do not know who is right, do good to one another and all humans and either spend our time on this earth well, or spend our time on this earth well, and meet as brothers in the hereafter.

        Good either way.

        February 4, 2014 at 10:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      What procedures do you propose to test for the "spiritual", hence SUBJECTIVE?

      Speaking of dishonesty, why do you hold to the idea that free will can be compatible with an omniscient god?

      December 4, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • HotAirAce

      So, are you going to list a, b, c, etc. and what we can expect at z?

      December 4, 2013 at 6:15 am |
      • Robert Brown

        Ace,

        a – attend a protestant revival
        b- hear the word of God preached
        c- consider the word of God

        z- You will experience the Holy Spirit.

        December 4, 2013 at 9:02 am |
      • HotAirAce

        A to c already done, on more than one occasion, z never achieved. Now go ahead, tell me that it's my fault, that I wasn't sincere enough, or don't have an open mind, or?

        December 4, 2013 at 9:06 am |
        • Robert Brown

          d – repeat a – c.

          December 4, 2013 at 9:09 am |
        • Madtown

          Why Protestant?

          December 4, 2013 at 10:04 am |
        • Robert Brown

          Madtown,

          Those are the only ones I have experience with. There are several denominations of Protestants; I have attended Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist. I prefer Baptist, but I have some confidence in the other two based on personal experience.

          December 4, 2013 at 10:13 am |
        • Madtown

          Fair enough Robert. Would you think someone could achieve similar results through a different denomination, or different religion altogether?

          December 4, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  6. bostontola

    Something theists and atheists have in common, we will have to deal with death. Ms. Egan sounds sincere, pragmatic, and like an experienced hands on person to me.

    December 2, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  7. Neil

    People often tend to have a romanticized, farcical view of love which is shallow. Love is often portrayed as a kiss beginning with Kay jewelry, a diamond ring, fancy dinners and wooing.

    You speak it like it is, sister! Well said!

    Love is:
    action,
    diaper change,
    the crushed pills in applesauce,
    the sponge bath.
    taking care of someone when we hate it all.

    December 2, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Love is...

      4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

      1 Corinthians

      December 2, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
      • Love is...

        That is the Biblical definition of love.
        :)

        December 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Apple Bush

    Why does god need human beings to spread his word? This is a being that can simultaneously watch, hear or ignore any number of a quadrillion trillion trillion living or inanimate things throughout the universe. This is the all-powerful creator who provided every rule under which we understand our universe. All technology flows from him, yet he can't tell us himself to behave?

    December 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Red

      If he talked to us directly then none of us would sin. It defeats the purpose of this trial and test that life is. We're on punishment. The only beauty He will show us is the beauty of the universe we live in, which is more than enough for me.

      December 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
      • sam stone

        how is it a test if god is omniscient?

        December 3, 2013 at 6:39 am |
        • Red

          It's not a test for Him, it's for us. We just come from that one source. And we're just a peon in the grand scheme of things. We aren't designed to understand why we're going through this trial. That's why God gave us parables. And that's why He made everything in pairs. Just to let us know that nothing is one, except Him. And that one source had no beginning and has no end. Can we comprehend that? No. And we're not supposed to. Every soul has to earn the secrets of the heavens and the Earth. Nothing can stay on top because of time. Time is everything's worst enemy in this universe and God made it that way. There's no time on the other side. Existence will never stop.

          December 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
        • Madtown

          That's why God gave us parables.
          ----
          Where are these parables God gave us? I'd like to read them, I bet they're interesting.

          December 3, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
      • nclaw441

        Red, God spoke directly to Adam and Eve, and they still sinned.

        December 7, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  9. Apple Bush

    I lie here.
    Pain; immobile
    Worthless
    She comes; sometimes he comes
    I love them
    I hate them
    Embarrassment and sadness
    Only memories keep me company now
    Family; where are the checks; we’ll visit tomorrow
    Dying with no dignity
    Just help from a brave soul
    Help I would rather not have most days
    Death can’t come soon enough

    December 2, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Alan

      1 Samuel 30:6
      David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the LORD his God.

      Trust in God.

      December 2, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        There are no gods, sorry.

        December 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
        • Alan

          Your writing reveals someone that has rejected God and finds no hope in life. Why reject God and live in hopelessness when you can trust in God and regain faith and hope for this life and the next?

          Hope in the words of a 9 year old :Hope is a ray of sunshine in a dark pit.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Alan, perhaps you did not understand my post. There are no gods. One cannot reject what does not exist.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          Alan, a belief in any god is not required for anything.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Alan, my poem can be interpreted any way you wish, but I had my late mother-in-law in mind. Personally I have great hope in life and am a happy atheist.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
        • Alan

          Good for you Apple Bush, just wanted to make sure you find hope and meaning in this life and are prepared for the next! :)

          December 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Alan, thank you but I am not aware of any "next" life. I fully intend to return to the stuff of the Earth, blissfully asleep for eternity.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
        • Red

          Of course you aren't aware of a next life Apple Bush. If we were aware of it, once again, we wouldn't sin. We'd just be sitting around waiting to die so we can get away from the evils of this universe. If there were no next life, then there wouldn't be this one in the first place. We return to the source we came from.

          December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
        • nclaw441

          Why do you not believe God exists?

          December 7, 2013 at 10:41 am |
      • Madtown

        You can trust in God, but why christianity? Do you think this is the only way of thinking about God?

        December 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Madtown, if there were gods, you could trust in them to provide misery. That is about it.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
        • The Factor

          God offers a plan of salvation only in Christ and that redemption is available to all who are willing to accept God's plan of salvation as outlined in John 3:16.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
        • Madtown

          ...salvation only in Christ and that redemption is available to all
          -----
          If it's "available to all", how do you explain the large number of human beings on earth at this very moment with no knowledge of Christ? How is it available to them?

          December 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • The Factor

          John 3:16-17 applies to all those who have heard the gospel and accepted the truth and to all those who have rejected the gospels.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          @The Factor

          Your belief in the nonsense of the bible is cute but ridiculous.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
        • Madtown

          John 3:16-17 applies to all
          ---–
          LOL, that's hilarious. I'm sure this scripture will be very comforting, to people with no knowledge that the scripture exists. Meanwhile, other humans in other cultures may have scripture that you are unaware of. It may, or may not, cover non-followers such as yourself. How does that make you feel? Why is your scripture correct, and theirs not? Maybe God gave the "real" religion to a different culture alltogether, and you have no knowledge of it.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
        • The Factor

          This is not about a religion or culture, there is only ONE path to SALVATION and that is ONLY by believing in JESUS CHRIST as your Lord and Savior.

          John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

          December 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Why do you keep quoting the bible? Do you have any original thoughts about the universe of your own?

          December 2, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          P.S. Putting things in CAPS does not strengthen your case. The bible is fiction. Nice Copy and Paste skills though.

          December 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
        • Madtown

          there is only ONE path to SALVATION and that is ONLY by believing in JESUS CHRIST
          ------
          Yes, you mentioned you believe this. Again, what does this mean for the human beings with no knowledge of Christ? Doesn't God care about them? Are they less human than special people like you? If God had the requirement that all humans follow Jesus, why doesn't God allow all humans to have access to Jesus?

          December 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
        • The Factor

          Why does God do this? Why doesn't God do that? There are ~7B people in this world and each one would have their own questions as how God go about His daily affairs. Neither you nor I are competent enough to suggest and advice on how and should God conduct His affairs on planet earth.

          We have been given the Bible as the instruction manual on how we should behave, and that's what you and I will be held accountable for at the end of life.

          The scriptures say, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." All you have to do today is, repent of your sins and accept the plan of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

          December 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
        • Maddy

          Look, Factor, are you capable if addressing Madtown's questions at all? You shuck and jive moves are tiring. Just answer Madtown, already.

          December 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
        • Madtown

          We have been given the Bible as the instruction manual
          ----
          So, you can't answer the question without regurgitating scripture, I didn't think you could. Um, no............"we" have NOT been "given" the bible as a manual for how to live, at least not all of us. That's the entire point!!!!!!!!! If God really intended it to be a manual for living, why would he not provide it to ALL his equal creations? Only some of the people he created get the manual, others are out of luck?! And, people like you still think these people will be judged negatively for not following the manual, when they have no idea the manaul even exists?!?!? This could not possibly make any less sense. You are exhibit 1A, as to the damage religion can do to a person. Think for yourself man!!!!

          December 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Madtown,
          “ ….how do you explain the large number of human beings on earth at this very moment with no knowledge of Christ? How is it available to them?”

          Those who have been saved by the grace of God know that God is good and his mercy endures forever. We know that Jesus is a righteous judge. His judgment is impartial and perfect. I personally don’t believe that those who have never heard the gospel wind up in hell. I believe they are considered the same as children who have yet to reach the age of accountability.

          I saw this a while ago and read the first page. It sounded pretty good, if you are interested in more info on the subject. http://www.biblequery.org/Doctrine/NeverHeardTheGospel/WhatAboutThoseWhoDiedBeforeHearingTheGospel.htm

          December 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
        • Madtown

          I personally don’t believe that those who have never heard the gospel wind up in hell.
          ----–
          Well that's good Robert, of course they wouldn't. The problem, as I see it, with your response, is you directly correlate the term "God", with the definition of God from christianity. You don't allow that there may be other legitimate definitions of God. You seem to believe that "God" and the God from christianity, are synonymous, the same. I think that's silly. I think you believe this because you're a christian. My opinion is that God is a completely independent ent.ity/concept from religion. Religion was created, by man, to attempt to answer things we can't answer. Do you doubt the power of God? You seem to. Creating this entire universe, and all life within, is a tremendous feat. Surely God is powerful enough to get a simple message out to EVERYONE, if he desired everyone follow it? You don't seem to think he's that powerful.

          December 2, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Madtown,
          Yes, I am a follower of Christ. I am well aware there are other definitions of God. The God that I have experienced is the one I refer to.

          I don’t doubt the power of God. I believe he created humans with a desire for him. We are attracted to God, but some rebel.

          He created a being that could love him, or not.

          December 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          p.s.
          I agree religions are man made.

          December 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          I agree religions are man made.

          December 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Please forgive the extra post. I thought the word filter ate it.

          December 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
        • Madtown

          The God that I have experienced is the one I refer to.
          ---–
          I'd just say that you make the corellation because that's your preferred from of religion. I think if you were born in Egypt, you'd follow the muslim way, and corellate that definition to God. I only bring up the comment about "God's power" because I believe that if there truly was only 1 way, everyone would have equal access to it. God is that powerful. Because this isn't the case and as you said, religions are creations of man, it just irks me to read posts like we see above where someone suggests their way is the "only" way. I have no problem saying "I don't know". I believe there are many routes up the same mountain, with none being any better than the other.

          December 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
        • sam stone

          religion is man made.

          as is the concept of god

          as are all the biblical stories

          December 3, 2013 at 3:58 am |
    • Sara(swati)

      AB, I think you portray the experience of many well.

      December 3, 2013 at 7:39 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.