By Kate Callaghan, Frist Global Health Leader
When I pulled up the patient’s chart, the first thing that caught my eye was the “1989” at the end of her date of birth. “She’s my age,” I thought to myself. Ms. A was presenting to the clinic with a chief complaint of “flu-like” symptoms.
Of course, this was nothing extraordinary by medical standards; in fact, we had seen at least a few others with the same symptoms earlier that day. But despite the seeming normality of her presenting problem, I paused for a few reasons as I prepared to enter her room. First, I needed to get a Nepali interpreter on the line, as this patient spoke little-to-no English. And second, I realized that there was a 6-year-old little girl with the same last name who had also just been roomed and was presenting with the same symptoms. “Is this her daughter?” I wondered. “Or her sister? Or maybe a cousin?”
I opened the door to a young Nepali woman and a little Nepali girl. In the back of the room, the young woman sat bundled in a large, black coat, her white mask over her nose and mouth, a general precaution the clinic takes for anyone presenting with these symptoms.
She appeared half asleep, her head hanging toward her right shoulder. Curled in a ball on the chair to her right, the little girl lay with a similar mask, her head resting in the young woman’s lap.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, introducing myself via the interpreter. “Can you tell me what has brought you into the clinic today?”
The young woman with the mask proceeded to tell me her story. The constellation of constitutional symptoms plus the 102.3 °F temperature staring back at me from the notes I had jotted prior to entering the room screamed flu.
“My daughter has the same thing,” she concluded, pointing to the huddled mass beside her. “Hers just started this morning.”
My questions asked and answered, I pointed to the exam table and requested that she sit there. She rose, waking the child, and moved to the table, still bundled in the coat and mask. After removing the mask for a brief ear, nose, and throat exam, I asked her if she could take off her coat so I could listen to her heart and lungs.
The second she did, she began to shiver, saying: “I’ve felt cold since this started.”
I responded: “Is where you’re living warm? Do you have heat?” She replied, “Yes.”
I finished the exam, examined her daughter, and told them both I would return shortly with my attending physician. When I walked out of the room, the clash of similarity and difference between my story and this 26-year-old Nepali woman’s overwhelmed me. We were, we are, so different. I know next to nothing about her home country of Nepal. We have so little shared space in terms of language. She has a child. I’m single.
And yet, even amidst all that difference, this encounter was profound because in this woman, I saw a bit of myself. Something as small as a shared birth year had reminded me before I entered this woman’s room that, ultimately, we weren’t so different. There was this shared element of our stories, the reality of their beginning within months of one another even if on opposite sides of the planet, that invited me to pause and remember our shared humanity.
Kate Callaghan is a Frist Global Health Leader working at the Siloam Family Health Center with refugee, immigrant, and other underserved individuals.