Tanzania: Through the looking glass


GloriousThrough the Looking Glass

We sat under the shadow of a nearby Acacia tree at the corner of the orphanage to hide from the sweltering sun. The little girl beside me shielded her eyes with her dusty hands as the fierce rays intermittently broke through the leaves. We stayed on the red clay earth for two hours while she struggled to open her eyes until it was time to carry her inside. Her name was Agnus. She was the newest addition to the orphanage and I had been assigned to stay at her side because until today she refused to open her eyes. No one knew her story.

I met Agnus when I was a volunteer at Glorious Orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. My duty was to teach and oversee the care of the 63 children at the orphanage. In the evenings, I took children to the hospital located in the nearby city to receive care for problems ranging from HIV to malaria. These hospital trips allowed me to connect with my students on an individual basis, and became the glue that solidified my desire to pursue a career in medicine. For most of the students, I felt as though I could offer a concrete service that directly contributed to their health. With Agnus, however, I felt uneasy and powerless. It was clear she had been through a profoundly life-changing experience and needed help working through it, but I didn’t know where to begin or what I could do to.

I thought back to a doctor I shadowed in India who thought carefully and holistically about his patients’ needs. A year before my trip to Tanzania, I had the opportunity to shadow an orthopedic surgeon in my family’s hometown of Nadiad, India. It was here, in a cramped operating room lit only by sunlight and equipped with the bare essentials, where I learned that great physicians need not only physical tools, but emotional tools as well. I witnessed the doctor piece together the shattered femur of a factory worker whose leg had been crushed. In spite of the pain he felt, the man smiled as he was wheeled into the operating room; he was thankful to the doctor. The doctor himself had arranged for the man to come to the OR that day. He helped him free of charge because he believed his patient had the resolve to recover. Three days later, the man dropped his cane and took five shaky steps. I was amazed. The man was determined to walk and through his will he did just that.

The possibility of being able to impact someone’s life, like the doctor in India, is what excites me most about becoming a physician. This physician looked through the man’s eyes and understood that his patient could lose the use of his leg and his livelihood if the surgery was not conducted. Through this trip, I realized how much impact a physician can have on the lives of his patients. A physician’s duty is not only to serve his patients, but also to understand his patient’s perspective.

This desire to help people, like the man in India, who live in remote parts of the world is what brought me to Glorious Orphanage. For Agnus to be examined by a doctor, I walked an hour to the hospital with her on my hip. During her exam, the physician began asking her a series of questions in Swahili. As we waited for the blood work, the physician pulled me to the side and whispered, “The child is not blind.” Agnus’ symptoms stemmed from the emotional trauma of enduring physical and sexual abuse by her parents who abandoned her in an empty warehouse. The problem wasn’t that she couldn’t see, the problem was that she didn’t want to.

That afternoon as we walked back to the orphanage, Agnus and her story weighed heavily on my mind. I thought back to what the physician in India would have done. I had worked hard to build a rapport with Angus, to build trust and establish an environment that she would know was safe. I was thrilled to be there that afternoon under the acacia tree when she first started opening her eyes to the sky, to the trees, and to the world she had disconnected herself from. As she opened her eyes, I too was beginning to see medicine through a different perspective: sometimes the greatest contribution to a person’s health is the effort to understand their struggle, and the relationship that develops in the process.

About the Author: My name is Naiya Patel and I am a first year medical student at UT Southwestern medical school in Dallas, Tx. My passions in medicine are very global health geared.

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One response to “Tanzania: Through the looking glass

  1. Wow, what an experience. I think what you said is so true, from a doctors perspective there is also so much about the emotional well being of the patients as well. Glad to hear this story.

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