Worst headache of your life? Subarachnoid hemorrhage.
Starry sky pattern? Burkitt’s lymphoma.
Ash leaf spots? Tuberous sclerosis.
We see the needles in the haystack. We know the buzzwords. We know what the implication is when we read the phrases in a clinical vignette.
Let’s try one more. Cogwheel rigidity? Resting tremor? Shuffling gait? Trouble standing up from a seated position? Dementia? That’s right; it’s Parkinson’s disease. More than that, it’s all I could focus on when seeing my grandfather for the first time in over six years.
When I think of my grandfather, I used to think of ice cream. When I visited him abroad as a child, we would walk to the ice cream stand—I loved the ice cream and he loved the walk. Once, he tricked me and told me that we would be trying a new ice cream stand just a little farther down the road. It turned out to be over a mile away, and he would just smile knowingly when I asked if we were there yet. Luckily, as soon as I got my ice cream, I forgot about the deceit. That is, until it was time to walk home.
When I think of my grandfather, I used to think of hair—actually, the lack of hair. My mom jokes that she’s never seen a strand of hair on my grandfather’s head; he’s been bald for as long as she can remember. I remember wondering, as a child, if it made him sad that he didn’t have hair, but he just laughed at the jokes.
When I think of my grandfather, I used to think of coffee. He loved coffee, while everyone around him preferred tea. When he would visit us, I would drink coffee with him because I wanted to be different, too. Even though I hated the bitter taste of it, I would drink it black because I wanted to be like him. It’s only now that I realize the irony of it—that in my quest to be different, I wanted to be like someone else.
Now when I think of my grandfather, I don’t think of ice cream, hair, or coffee. I think of medical buzzwords. I think how trite he seems, how he is the textbook definition of his disease.
And I hate it.
I hate that I can’t look at my grandfather and focus on the memories. I want to kick myself because when I saw him for the first time in six years, I wasn’t thinking about him or me—I was thinking about Parkinson’s. I was looking for the buzzwords.
As someone who is learning medicine, I couldn’t ignore my impulse to diagnose. It scared me because I was looking at my grandfather, this person I love and cherish, as a clinical vignette. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, a way to distance myself from the reality that he’s sick. But it felt impersonal and insincere. For a moment, I ignored the person behind the diagnosis.
Detaching ourselves as medical professionals from the story is sometimes necessary. If we become too emotionally invested, we risk feeling exhausted and burned out. But how do we turn the switch back on? How do we allow ourselves to feel the emotions, no matter how difficult, when we are faced with someone we love, someone who is worthy of our raw emotions? How do we maintain our humanism when we’re being picked apart by ever-circling buzzwords?
How do we avoid losing the person behind the story?
No Fresh Flowers
by Krystha Cantu, M4
“No fresh flowers”
“No live plants”
The words were etched on a sign
In a font reminiscent of a Christmas card
The fluorescent cantaloupe hue of the morning sunset poured
Into the hospital room with a loud splash
In the Transplant unit there were
Other things that were beautiful
Hands gripping each other through the night
While the newest kidney hummed from the inside
Flushed and violet
While we collectively held our breaths
A new chance to turn the dialysis machines off
To restart the machinery of your inner ambitions
Unbend the page to your favorite book
A carousel of drugs and instructions
Round and round
But no fresh flowers
No live plants
No pots or vases to carry encouragement
They will open you up and plant a promise there
The surgeon stitched all night
Meticulous and hunched over
Numbing his feet and clamping his lungs
So that you might smell the canopy of flowers around you again
Lessons from the Refugees
by Bindu Thota, M2
I did not know what it meant to be a refugee. It was a buzzword that held no weight in my mind, until I went to Aida. Run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Aida Refugee Camp is home to approximately 5,500 people.
Aida looked like its own town. It was surrounded by a 25-foot cement "Separation Wall," serving as a divider between Palestine and Israel. Walking around, it was hard to miss the graffiti and various artistic depictions of keys. The key is a profound symbol to many Palestinian refugees: It symbolizes the right to return to their homes that were once in present-day Israel.
Generations have been raised in this camp. Kids tried to look under the wall to catch a glimpse of a world that they had only heard about through stories—a place their family once called home.
A Palestinian refugee said to me, “Americans know the least about what is going on, but they affect our situation the most. You must go back and tell them what you saw. Our story is not heard.”
Lesson #1: Ignorance and silence are deadly tools for the perpetuation of injustice.
My mom once said that if I want to know the truth, I should stop watching the news and go see it for myself. After finishing my first year of medical school, with my mom’s words in mind, I decided to observe the current refugee crisis firsthand in Thessaloniki, Greece.
My days in the camp brought back memories of Palestine. Children would grab me by the hand and drag me to their tents. Their parents would invite me in and immediately make me coffee or tea. They would attempt to feed me with their government-distributed food. I would reject the offer, but the Arab spirit is stubborn, and they always succeeded in feeding me, sometimes with their own hands.
One Syrian-Palestinian family made me my favorite Palestinian dish, makloubeh, a casserole consisting of rice, meat, and fried vegetables. Using their restricted resources, they managed to make me the most memorable meal of my life. I had never felt hospitality like this before, and I had never experienced such deep love from strangers.
One of the children in the family drew me a picture that described her journey in the best way she could tell me. Arabic is a difficult language to understand—art is not.
When the family asked me what I was studying, I told them I was in medical school. They smiled at me as though I was their own daughter. They were so proud! When they asked me what kind of doctor I would be, I said, “Whatever you need. I am coming back to serve your people.”
The immensity of suffering expressed in the stories I heard cannot be adequately described in words. The fact that these refugees were living in a camp meant that they had successfully escaped from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. These people had enough money to be smuggled on a boat, did not drown in the Mediterranean Sea, and had walked across Europe. The majority of these people had family members who were killed by the Assad regime, the Taliban, or ISIS. However, their PTSD and depression were hidden by Arab hospitality and smiles when we visited them. The odds were stacked against them, yet these refugees survived. I can only conclude that they have the favor of God in their lives. God is undoubtedly protecting a people that He loves.
Lesson #2: There is hope.
In March 2016, Ghulam Kehar, the founder of Amaanah Refugee Services, allowed our medical school to serve his organization. Amaanah is located in Houston, the top acceptor of refugees in the United States. Ghulam invited us to help with something that had not previously been focused on: the health of their clients.
Hundreds of refugees who have been subjected to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our lifetime live only an hour-and-a-half from College Station. Amaanah provides a high school boys’ soccer league, a dignified thrift shop, and tutoring for refugee kids, among other services. By being the support system a person needs in an unfamiliar land, Amaanah is changing the game for refugee care.
In March, 20 first-year students went to Houston to take the medical histories of 19 refugee women from places like Somalia, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Burma. That day changed all of us. The past medical history was not just a medical form—it was each woman’s story completely unfolded and uncensored. Through their medical histories, we learned the intimate details of the domestic abuse within their households, the war and suffering they left, their journeys leaving their countries, and the hope that they carried coming to America. When we asked them what they wanted most, they nearly all responded by saying, “A better life for my children.”
In addition to what the refugees in Greece had to journey through, these women made it through the two-year vetting process from the UNHCR, National Counterterrorism Center and intelligence community, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department. Although these women were officially classified as refugees, their identities encompassed much more. These women were warriors encased in their roles as mothers, embodying raw, sacrificial love.
Lesson #3: Serve refugees, defend their dignity, and address evil, divisive, and bigoted language used to describe any group of people.
Immediately after I came back from Greece, it was time to start second year in a new location. I missed the hyperglycemia-inducing tea (Syrians do not hold back on their sugar), the greatest makloubeh of my life, and the people who demonstrated joy in the midst of suffering.
When I moved into my apartment, I knew I needed to meet my neighbors, but I made excuses. Finally, a month into living in Austin, I knocked on my neighbor’s door. When they opened their door, my mouth dropped—my neighbors were Iraqi refugees. They immediately invited me in and made me Iraqi tea: 50% tea, 50% sugar. I was home.
The next day, I became nostalgic about Greece and Palestine, lamenting my upcoming test after I saw a video of a friend eating makloubeh on social media. An hour after my pity party, there was a knock on my door. It was my 8-year-old neighbor, Ali, holding a plate of makloubeh.
“This is for you,” he said. Cue my second mouth drop.
Lesson #4: For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” –Galatians 5:14
I bask in the privilege of knowing that I will have one of the greatest jobs in the world. Doctors are one of the most powerful advocates for the marginalized. While I saw ethnic division between the Syrians, Afghans, Yazidis, Iraqis, Sunnis, Shias, and Christians in the refugee camp, the physician was the one who played the role as a reconciliator—the one who serves all, no matter who they are. Whether I am in Bethlehem, Greece, Houston, or Austin, I am indebted to the refugees that I have encountered. They have given me a purpose to studying medicine, and they remind me of the hope that I can hold on to: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." –Revelation 21:4
Lesson #5: Physicians are the equalizers of humanity.
Enjoy the holiday season! Warm wishes from the Board of The Synapse:
CJ Conlon, Copy Editor
Joseph Joo, Copy Editor
Sneha Raghunathan, Copy Editor
Nina Tran, Design Editor
Hanna Chen, Chairman of the Board
Cindy Roman, Managing Editor
Nida Virani, Acquisition Editor
Tiffany Chan, Design Editor
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A special thank you to Barbara Gastel for helping with final edits.
Faculty Editor: Karen Wakefield