It was just a regular hot and humid Saturday morning in Miami, and I was on my way out of a local Walmart after buying a few items. As I walked to my car at the end of the parking lot, I heard a voice asking me “Son, any change?” In a neighborhood that is known to have a disproportionately large amount of vagrants, I did what I usually do to ignore requests for money, which is to put my head down and act like there is nobody there as I walk past them, but something was different about this encounter.
The voice, the accent, the tone, it sounded exactly like my grandmother’s voice and it stopped me immediately. Even though I knew this person could not be her, my mind reflected upon the day I learned of when my own grandmother committed suicide nearly 15 years ago and never having the chance to say goodbye. Now, my life’s path crosses with someone who resembles her so much and I just ignored them completely as if they did not exist. My own actions made me feel miserable, and after driving a few miles on the way to my home, I turned around and drove back to the store just to talk to this lady.
As I approached her, I realized that she was an elderly lady in her 80s sitting on a grocery basket turned sideways under a tree. Her clothes were faded and torn; she was sweating, had no teeth in her mouth, and she had a dry mouth from thirst and hunger. After talking to her for a few minutes, she explained to me that her husband died, she was living in Miami by herself, her kids don’t call or care for her, and that she needed money for knee surgery.
My heart broke at learning of this because here was a person who was an immigrant from another country, too old and tired to be able to recover from many of the challenges life plays, but here she was with whatever knowledge and strength she had left, fighting for survival. I went on to give her money and buy her a meal that day. I gave her my phone number and told her that if she ever needed help she should call me. Even though I was just a graduate student and living on a meager budget at the time, I felt that helping this lady was my civic duty as a human being.
A few months passed, and I received a phone call from this lady. She asked me to take her to a church, which I did the same evening. She spent hours in the church, and as I watched from the back of the sanctuary, she seemed to be having a conversation, pleading and crying with someone even though nobody was there. As I dropped her home that evening, she thanked me and said, “Sorry for bothering you today son.” I said “no problem,” gave her a hug, and told her that I will call her next week. She looked at me and gave a slight smile. The next morning, I received a phone call from an unknown phone number. It turned out it to be her neighbor, and they were calling me because my phone number was the last number she dialed before she died.
This experience was one that reaffirmed several of my personal beliefs. The first is that regardless of one’s status quo in life, everyone and everything in the world is connected through humanity. Even though it is easy to lose value of this truth, it is a message that people need to be routinely reminded of so that they treat people as they would equally want to be treated, and to be thankful for whatever fortune they have. Some people may think that they do not have anything to give or feel as they struggle to get through the day, but it is important to realize that there are millions of people in the world who are in a worse predicament.
These are all values that I believe every physician must possess in order to be an ambassador of medicine and bring justice to the title of being a healer. With all the duties a physician has when one undertakes the Hippocratic Oath, physicians must realize that it is not just about doing no harm, but conversely as much as “doing well” onto to others. This is not just restricted to providing exceptional quality of health care to patients, but also maintaining a standard of civic duty in the community to help those in need in any way possible.
Dharam Persaud-Sharma is a medical student.