Aubanel attempted to convince Mother Teresa by explaining that her vows of poverty would not be affected; that, on the contrary, it was because of her lifelong dedication to her work that she needed to be treated at any cost and in any place, in order to continue her mission. “There must be a reason why I am here to help you,” Aubanel told Mother Teresa. “I am one of very few experts in the world that can treat your condition. I’ve never known how to listen to God, but this time I feel a calling.” After a few days of trying to convince her, Mother Teresa still refused and told Aubanel that God was her doctor and he would decide her fate.
Mother Teresa immediately stopped her medical treatment and the following day left Tijuana for Los Angeles to continue with her work. On the third day in Los Angeles, Mother Teresa fell ill again and Aubanel got a call from Mother Teresa’s staff asking for advice. The doctor explained to them that in her condition she needed to be admitted to a hospital as soon as possible. Mother Teresa once again refused, saying she preferred to be treated in Tijuana. According to Aubanel, Mother Teresa had a special place in her heart for Tijuana; she felt closer to God there. Mother Teresa arrived in Tijuana the next morning. The doctor was made to wait while Mother Teresa visited the Christmas festivities at her homes in Tijuana, and it wasn’t until she returned at 10 p.m. that she allowed herself to be treated. She agreed to go to the hospital, but after Christmas.
On December 26, Mother Teresa was taken across the border to Scripps Clinic under the condition that she would not be accepted as Mother Teresa but by her real name, Agnes Bojaxhiu. After a laboratory test, Aubanel found out that Mother Teresa had five obstructed arteries and decided on angioplasty; one of the arteries required the placement of a stent. The operation was a success, yet, the stent procedure was still in clinical trials and required FDA approval to be used on Mother Teresa. After her successful surgery, the stent became known by some in the medical community as the “holy” stent.
The effort made to save Mother Teresa’s life was a profound experience for Aubanel. After the operation, Mother Teresa entrusted the doctor with two tasks: to create mobile health clinics to serve Tijuana’s underprivileged population; second, if Aubanel wished to bring back modern heart medicine to Mexico, she had to build a cardiovascular center that would serve the whole community, rich and poor. The hospital would be built on the grounds of the medical center Aubanel’s mother had built in Tijuana.
The doctor then went about raising funds for the center. She saved money, but the process was slow. Every time she flew around the world to see Mother Teresa for her checkup she would have to tell her of the difficulty she was having raising money. After every visit, the nun would ask if she had begun to build the center and the doctor would answer hesitantly, “I still don’t have enough funds.” Mother Teresa would reply, “You don’t need money; all you need is faith.”
Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, and Aubanel would not wait any longer. She decided to begin construction with the funds she had at that moment. For a last blessing, she asked permission to visit the nun’s grave in Calcutta. As she visited the site, she felt a deep spiritual approval to begin the task. Before leaving, the doctor made one more request to the Council of the Missionaries of Charity at the convent. She wanted to name the center after Mother Teresa. The nuns approved the request unanimously, and the Instituto de Ciencias Cardiovasculares Madre Teresa came to be.
Aubanel hired an unknown architect to design the building on what was part of the front plaza adjacent to the entrance of the medical center. Aubanel began the work without consulting or intending to work with Morphosis — it was she who had been entrusted to begin the project by one of the most devout spiritual leaders in the world; and due to Morphosis’ success in the architectural field, she thought they would be beyond her financial means.
By the late ’90s, the firm had matured and was becoming one of the most important practices in the Unites States and abroad, winning commissions and awards for high-profile projects. Another concern Aubanel had was that, according to Mother Teresa, everything the doctor did under her name and blessing had to be humble and unpretentious; Aubanel thought that by giving the project to a local architect, she would be true to this ideal. At the end the new wing, a bland white stucco box with a pitched roof was attached to the original Morphosis building. “A crime to the building designed by Livio, Michael, and Thom,” she explains, “but true to the needs of the new institute.”
Michael Rotondi thought the doctor’s preoccupation was reasonable, yet he felt that he would have considered working pro bono on the project. “If the project is important enough, then we always find a way to make it happen.” The architect felt that Aubanel’s speculation regarding the firm’s success was just a way to validate her predetermined decision. “Dr. Aubanel had other plans and commitments, I understand, but it’s too bad we never spoke. At least it would have dispelled her preconceptions.”
If you go and visit the building today, you can walk up the marble stairs to the fourth floor and see its metal structure. The building’s green glass block façade shimmers in the afternoon light and resembles Pierre Chareau’s glass house rather than the high modernism of James Stirling or Alvar Aalto. The building did not make it into any architectural history book because just like any other late-modern structure, it could just be “part of the platonic idea of building the ultimate glass box, one of many in the history of modernism,” as the British architectural historian Reyner Banham said. The young architects who designed the building are now renowned architects. Michael Rotondi has his own practice with projects worldwide. Thom Mayne still leads Morphosis and in 2005 received the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his lifetime achievement to the discipline of architecture.