Intricate symbols and characters often decorated my environment. As a child growing up in [name of city], I faced signs in Mandarin and Hindu scriptures with a mixture of curiosity and frustration. Across the street from my childhood home, I saw the effect of misunderstanding played out in reverse at the [name of hospital]. Accompanying my aunt on her trips to pick up prescriptions, I observed patient-staff interactions. I could not hear the conversations, but I recognized the expression on the receptionist’s face each time she spoke to a Hindi-speaking patient—wrinkled nose and a raised eyebrow with a look of confusion. At a young age, I understood how discouraging even simple communication could be across a language barrier.
After years of analyzing Hindi grammatical texts and Spanish vocabulary cards, I sought a chance to engage patients like those I had seen struggling as a child—this time, as an advocate. Two weeks into my position as a Child Life Volunteer at [name of center], I was beckoned to enter a patient’s room. As I entered, a loud sound followed: a seven-year old child was screaming while the attending, with a gentle smile, turned him to the side and placed a stethoscope on his back. Devising a plan with the team, I gathered resources—a teddy bear and a bottle of bubbles. As I blew, I became intrigued by the way the child’s screams soothed into a gentle whimper at the sight of the translucent spheres. On the monitor, his heart rate began to stabilize, and I assisted the residents in discussing measures of comfort with his mother. I had known that doctors prescribed medicine and did procedures. Yet, as I facilitated interactions with the attending for the rest of the round, I realized that “treatment” was not only physiologically-based. It was a communication-centered approach and collaborative effort that spoke to my desire to comfort, and abilities in patient-centered management.
Returning to the playroom where volunteers like me would entertain patients, I met a family of five. Their mother hovered around the room, a bit lost. Examining my census, I saw Spanish-speaking only, and it was quickly confirmed as I overheard “Cómo se usa”. The mother was holding up an X-box remote. I felt her frustration. I recalled brief moments in [name of city], sitting in my elementary school classroom, asking for a pencil, and not being understood by the predominantly Mandarin-speaking students. Reliving this feeling, I stepped up to assist, and with my conversational Spanish, I offered communication-centered support. I demonstrated how the remote could be used to interact with the screen. Reciprocally, I learned that these slight adaptations foster more comfortable interactions. By the end of the shift, my supervisor walked into a room of three children, a patient, and a volunteer, playing Eye of the Tiger on Rock Band 2. Laughing with the kids, and feeling the mood lighten, I only wished I could do more to alleviate the patient’s headaches, which we later learned were being caused by a malignant brain tumor. As a physician, I determined, I could add to the uplifting impact of language with the knowledge of appropriate treatment.
As a college student, I searched for an opportunity to delve further into the patient recovery process and became involved in rehabilitation care at the [name of institute]. Awe and frustration mixed as I guided a patient to the mechanical robot. Having suffered a stroke that damaged his left hemisphere six months prior, he could barely move his right leg, and landed with a thud in his seat. While I was captivated by the EMG signals translated on to the computer screen to the side, our patient’s focus remained fixated on the screen in front of him. What Broca’s Aphasia meant to him was the loss of his ability to provide for his family. While I had been mainly learning about treating children, his condition reminded me of the consequences of illness later in life. For him, communication-centered care was not as simple as blowing bubbles, and physiologically-based medicine was not as straightforward as a dose of Tylenol. I realized that he did not want to see the lines of an EMG recording, but rather, see his right fingers flex and speak a full sentence instead of scattered words. Though I recognized a full recovery would not be possible, I sympathized with him and was committed to helping him gain a higher level of function.
Today, I am a linguistics major student studying the unconscious processing of language, and as I reflect on these inspiring moments working with patients, it becomes clear to me that though there are challenges in medical care, my intention to study medicine has never wavered from that day blowing bubbles. Furthermore, I aim to take my understanding of language and ideally facilitate cross-cultural understanding to improve the health outcomes of those I serve as a doctor. In particular, my encounter with a patient inquiring about the alcohol content in a medication, reminds me that this understanding extends past verbal language. I want to be the physician that can guide with not only treatment in mind, but also awareness of a patient’s situation—replacing that look of confusion all those years ago, with the reassurance of a smile.
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