Across Borders and Cultures
As a child, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit India, the birthplace of my parents, where we stayed with my grandfather in rural Punjab. He was sick at the time, suffering from multiple chronic illnesses, including a broken hip. He needed hip replacement surgery. Due to the area’s limited healthcare resources, the wait time was long, and my family had to watch him suffer.
Airplane mode disables me from using Wi-Fi and enables me to provide distraction-free care to the patients in front of me. Truly disconnecting is difficult, but being in rural Honduras allows me to switch my phone settings with ease. My otoscope and ophthalmoscope cannot see texts and emails. My stethoscope cannot hear incoming calls. My hands cannot feel my IPhone screen. I am in tune with my body, my senses and my patient.
It was 2010, and Haiti had just experienced a devastating earthquake that had affected hundreds of thousands of people. I was on a mission to Milot, in northern Haiti. It was my first medical mission. I was a bright-eyed, eager second-year medical student anticipating the start of my third-year clinical rotations.
After my second year as a premed student, I felt the need for something more hands-on than my studies. I longed for confirmation of the reasons I'd chosen to go into medicine. I decided to join a medical brigade that volunteered in places lacking access to care; the group would choose a location and offer a free, three-day clinic run by volunteer doctors, turning no one away.
The old woman was called to pay her bill, and upon returning to gather her possessions, she paused to say good-bye to the girl. I surmised that they had held some sort of conversation while waiting.
I have a knee injury that necessitates frequent visits to my orthopedic surgeon, and the physical therapy department, which is called “Rehabili," of the same hospital.
A few weeks ago, as I sat in the waiting area in front of my doctor’s door, waiting for my name to be called, a tall man in a ukata (a cotton kimono-style garment) slowly and regally walked by me. He had his obi tight and low around his hips, and his hair was long, and styled in a shiny chonmage, a topknot, on top of his head. This man was instantly recognizable as a sumo wrestler.
The unscreened windows were wide open, letting in both the breeze and buzzing flies. A chicken roamed about freely, unaware that it was in a surgical area. Off to the side sat a drying rack half-filled with "sterile" gloves, standing at attention like soldiers ready for inspection. In the center of the room lay a woman on the operating table, her feet in stirrups and her dress hiked up to her waist. She had delivered a baby at home a few days before and now was bleeding heavily. In desperation, she had walked by herself, in the heat, on dirt roads, from her hut to the hospital.
The OR report said she'd received two units of blood and was still intubated. Given my forty years of ICU nursing, it sounded routine.
"By the way, the patient is Muslim."
In the waiting room, I hear melodious Spanish words and think of my own family.
I think of my abuela (my grandmother) and of my parents--immigrants to a foreign land. They left behind the familiar to come to America. Childhood memories swirl in my mind, of my brothers and me eating empanadas in the evening, of my mother speaking her native tongue. Whenever I crossed the threshold to my school, or back to my house, I remember switching from one language to another.
The day came and went quickly, though I had been having bouts of nausea and vomitting throughout the day. Just figured it was nerves. After the reception, we went to the hotel room and I felt better. Next morning off to Jamaica.