I think we just did global health.
When we arrived at the San Juan health clinic for our global health fair, we didn’t know if five people would show up, or fifty. But there we were, miles into the Andes Mountains, no turning back. We arranged intake tables and foot washing stations, and armed the outdoor sink with 100 toothbrushes and a giant model of fake teeth. Our friend Leandro built hand washing stands, stopping only to tend to a scraggly lamb that wandered into the clinic yard. When 8 am finally struck, our first visitor arrived – an older man with a face weathered by long days on the mountainside. Excited to simply have a patient, we marched him around the stations like a VIP. He received foot care and a health exam, and we sent him home with a toothbrush/paste, hand washing stand, pain cream and a pair of eyeglasses to boot. Not long after, crowds arrived until we couldn’t fit everyone into the green. Thank goodness for the Polaroid camera our hygienist Lisa brought, which entertained the kids for hours as they showed off their new pearly whites. And I will never forget the looks on the adults’ faces as we placed new eyeglasses on their noses. They had no idea how hip they looked in their new American specs – they were just excited to see clearly for the first time in years.
Quit dying! Live like you’re dying.
I felt exhausted but so happy on the dusty drive back. As I rode and listened to music, Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” came on and choked me up a bit. The long, cold hallways of the hospital back home felt very far away and I was honestly relieved. No phone calls, no irritated specialists, no heated discussions with patients over narcotic prescriptions. I entered medicine like many people before me: to help people and make a difference in their greatest time of need. But like many people before me, after a few years I found myself burnt out and a little calloused. I’m not sure I was walking the hospital floors with the mindset to live like I was dying. I was…well…mostly dying. Or at least losing inspiration.
#winning at medicine.
Not to go all Patch Adams on you (which I recently rewatched and cried during), but the man has a point. “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I’ll guarantee you’ll win.” In Peru, I began to remember “the person.” And remembered myself as a person too. The reality is, no matter how glamorous medicine looks from the outside, you face hard days. Yes, you see dramatic recoveries when people never should have made it through. But you also do the dirty work. You see people at their worst. You see your own worst. Things can go wrong. People get misjudged. And all of that can end in a lot of hurt – for both the patients and the providers.
This cycle is true in both America and in Peru. But this trip reminded me there is more to medicine than the system we get stuck in. There was something about operating “outside” the system that felt back to my roots. Back to why I entered medicine in the first place. The people we treated were grateful just to be seen by a provider. No one cared about titles. No one blamed anyone for their issues. They felt loved and that they mattered. I left the trip re-inspired, and with a little extra kick in my step for those hospital hallways back home too.
Something New recently sent a group of medical professionals to Peru to host a health clinic in San Juan. The team included a doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, acupuncturist, nurse, and dental hygienist. This is an account from Lindsay, a physician assistant who practices hospital medicine in the Atlanta area.
I think we just did global health.