Do you know that it only takes one moment to make a meaningful impact on someone’s life? Do you know that sometimes the people who truly change our life can be someone you just met?
Last month, I embarked on a one week journey as a student volunteer on the May 2014 Humanity First Gift of Health trip to Guatemala. As a pre-med student, I joined the brigade to spend a productive week abroad helping those in need and at the same time , to obtain unique exposure to a new spectrum of health care issues that are often uncommon in the United States. My expectations of the knowledge I would gain through my participation in the brigade were clear from the beginning, but little did I know that this journey would be more than just a learning experience. It was a trip that opened my eyes… through this opportunity, I changed a life.
Wednesday was a typical busy day at the clinic. I decided to dedicate this day to shadowing one of the physicians because in the previous days, I had found that observing the process of clinical diagnosis in conditions common to the Sumpango population was very interesting to me. After we finished with the previous patient, a woman in her late 30s came in to see the doctor. If you looked at her, she seemed perfectly healthy, both physically and emotionally. I was expecting the usual process - patient sits down and starts presenting the doctor with his/her physical symptoms. This happened for the first minute, as she explained how she fell and scraped her left arm while walking home the previous day. She asked the doctor to give her pain medicine for what seemed to be a quite large scrape. The doctor, other student, and I were blind to this point. It was so sudden and unexpected that I can’t even recall how she changed from telling us about her physical pain to her deep emotional pain. Leticia had been a widow for a year; both of her daughters were engaged and moved out. With no friends and family, she spent her days alone at home. Leticia said “she had lost her purpose in life.” I can only give you a brief and superficial description of the sadness and pain she vocalized, but you would have to be there to be able to listen and feel deep in your heart the meaning of all her words. Physically, her eyes were shining bright but emotionally, you could see her heart enclosed in rotating dark cloud. The doctor identified her situation and showed me discretely when she circled the word “depression” in the diagnosis form the patient brought. She then gave her a small counseling session explaining how we all go through hardships in life and what she needed is to get away from the sadness and interact with others, enroll in workshops that would help her regain her own sense of value and productivity. Leticia walked out of her appointment to the pharmacy to get the pain medicine “for the arm.”
But where is the medicine to aid emotional pain?
I had seen two patients with depression earlier that week, so I thought this case would be like the others, for someone to have the chance to talk to the doctor and relieve some of the built up emotions is like a little boost for them to keep pushing through. I was wrong. Like one of the doctors told me the first day of clinic, “even if 20 patients come in for the same complaint, you can’t assume they are all the same. There are many external factors we have to look at in order to make a final diagnosis.”
When the next patient came in, there was a point where I had a gut feeling, something that I usually ignore, that this time it was different, it was something telling me “do NOT let her go, talk to her.” A few seconds later, I found myself desperately looking for Leticia around the clinic. Knowing how to approach her came naturally, because deep inside I knew I was doing this for a reason; I simply wanted to know more because to me, the narrative given to the doctor was not complete. I introduced myself and told her how I thought her story was so unique and that if she didn’t mind, I would love for her to please tell me more. During our 20 minutes together, she held my hand, cried, hugged me and smiled. During these 20 minutes, I learned the truth, I learned why I was there and I learned that God puts people in front of you for a reason. Leticia didn’t fall and scrape her arm the previous day, she did it to herself. Leticia didn’t plan to live today; she had attempted to cut her veins last night. Leticia had a mom that discriminated her for being poor. Leticia had three friends: one that thought drinking was the best medicine for her pain, another that thought that having a night could help her emotionally and financially, and one that thought that taking her to the Mexico border with drug lords could be her way to the “good life.” If you go back for a second, add what I just mentioned, plus being a recent widow, plus being alone all day, plus no job, plus no support. Is this real life? I kept asking myself as she continued talking. Never in a million years would I imagine meeting a person trapped in her own life, in a dark, revolving cloud of sadness. As a student volunteer, I didn’t prepare for this, but it was my only chance to give advice to a patient on the edge, someone that truly needed help, to a real suicidal patient. I know 20 minutes is a very short time, but I truly felt the bond with Leticia, it was like we had known each other for years, it was so “right” that we both acknowledged how we were there for each other at the right place, at the right time. I continued with the counseling that the doctor started, I tried to sympathize with her and told her how I’ve overcome some of my lowest points in life. I told her that my intention was not to advocate religion, but that in her situation the scape to her dark cloud was God. Faith goes a long way; God works in amazing ways. At the end of our conversation, she smiled radiantly, hugging me goodbye. I told her to visit me the next day, I just wanted to follow up and make sure she was okay.
The next day, Thursday, Leticia came unexpectedly into the clinic I was shadowing in. From a person you just met the day before, you expect a simple “hello!” but Leticia hugged me with such sentiment that I can only compare it my mother’s hugs. She then pulled out a decorative plate from her purse that said the words “Your friendship fills my life with happiness” and it was at that moment that I realized I had made an impact in someone’s life, that my “gut feeling” was right, and that believe or not, I have the ability to help someone see the positive side of life. This personally means so much to me because I know that as a physician this is what it will come down to, pure compassion. I knew it was going to be a long road for her to regain her purpose, but that night I talked to the Humanity First USA coordinator, Saifra, and she completely took matters into her own hands. With her help, we were able to get Leticia’s contact information with the hopes of signing her up to the Humanity First Academy where she could attend different classes and seminars for personal development. This was the last time I saw Leticia and before I finally said goodbye, she grabbed my hand against hers and enclosed a key chain with a picture of what used to be her family. She told me “Don’t ever forget about me, always keep me in your heart because you are very special to me and I will never forget you.”
Like I mentioned at beginning, I went to Guatemala with straightforward intentions to help people and gain basic medical knowledge. I have realized that joining a brigade can have more than its own outlined purpose. We, as pre-med students, can have an impact in the community being served; all it really takes is compassion. If you have it, you never know you might be at the right place, at the right time. Personally, after this experience, I have vowed to give care and attention to everyone I see. I figured it would make their day a little better, and who knows, it might save a life. When you realize the difference you can make for others, just by spending a few minutes together, your whole approach to life shifts.
— Ann Pacheco - Gift of Health, May 2014