I sat, enveloped by the clinic’s dusty walls and chalky smell. An array of orange and purple triangles popped out from the woman’s shawl, a stark contrast to the dirt floor and tan walls around her. Her long black hair was plaited in a perfect braid flowing down her back, and her heavy eyes remained glued to the floor as she mumbled polite answers to each of my questions. I had been staying in the mountains of Xela, Guatemala for less than a week. Each day, I would arrive at the local medical clinic to find a line of patients wrapping down the street. Most, like this lady, were indigenous people who had traveled miles from their homes, dressed in meticulously hand-woven outfits, to see a doctor for the first time in decades.
I will always remember the simplicity of my interaction with this lady. I had been seeing children with parasites and adults with unmanaged hypertension all day. This elderly woman’s malady was different. “Estoy triste” (“I am sad”), she said, and then burst into tears. She described how she no longer had the energy or desire for things she once enjoyed. Her children had all grown up and moved away from home, and nobody visited her anymore. Her “diagnosis” was simply loneliness. I could have walked a few steps down my neighborhood in Boston and found a nearly identical patient.
The universal need for healing is what originally drew me to medicine and public health. Disease and pain are shared vulnerabilities that transverse social, cultural, and economic boundaries. Though ailments differ in prevalence and risk factors, and tools vary in availability, the practice of medicine retains similar goals everywhere. It follows that people who choose a career in medicine, regardless of their role or location, share a similar drive to learn and heal. This concept has drawn both Anna and I to global health and international medical education, interests we hope to foster throughout our medical training and long into our clinical careers.
Global health experiences teach us that human suffering is a universal pain drawing us all together. No matter where you practice medicine, the realization of this principle will enrich your ability to care for those in need. As we embark on the final stretches of our medical education and prepare to begin residency next year, a global health experience would enrich us by solidifying these simple truths first-hand.