How being an immigrant shaped my approach to patient care

Think about the fear and uncertainty that ensues when being involuntarily uprooted from one’s home and community. Now imagine a shy, self-conscious fourteen-year-old girl being told that she has to switch high schools – not once, but twice. You may read this and think, “This doesn’t seem like such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.” However, to that fourteen-year-old, it is everything.

Many movies depict a stereotypical image of the cruelty and insensitivity of teenagers in American high schools that is undoubtedly exaggerated but yet not completely unrealistic. As a Chinese and Moroccan girl from Malaysia with a heavy British accent, my new high school in Georgia did not seem like a kind place. I was met with snide comments about the “funny words” I used, my “hipster” Chuck Taylors in a sea of cowboy boots, and my brown skin. Despite the obvious differences, I did make friends. The second move to my high school in Kansas was much smoother as, by then, I had become much more comfortable in my own skin.

My situation may be uncommon, but my experience is by no means unique. As a mixed-race member of a predominantly white community, I face different challenges than my non-mixed colleagues. Over the past year, our nation has tackled difficult issues regarding race and inequality that shed light on various systemic problems in our society. Though I have not personally felt the weight of racial oppression to the extent of some, I have had my own taste of it. Unpleasant and demoralizing does not even begin to cover the spectrum of feelings one experiences when realizing that you are not only an outcast, but also viewed as subpar and inadequate by some.

In medical school, I learned about all the different pathologies that affect our patients, and their respective treatments and prognoses. I thought the medical knowledge alone would enable me to treat my patients to the best of my ability. However, I now know that to not be true. Just the other day, I saw a diabetic with poor glucose control who, after more discussion, revealed that she cannot afford her glucometer strips and is unable to find access to a fridge to store her insulin at work, where she spends 14 hours a day. Our patients are more than just medical problems to be solved.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “but I can’t afford the medicine,” “my insurance won’t cover testing for that,” or “I can’t afford to take off work for the next two weeks.” The social and economic circumstances our patients face are inextricably tied to the care they need. The most notable physicians I have worked with have not only been able to treat their patients, but also show compassion, understanding, and an eagerness to help when presented with problems that may confound their ability to heal. Suffering is often not just the physical ailments that bring patients to us, but all of their worries surrounding their condition, disparities in access to health care, and other socioeconomic factors that sometimes even overshadow their medical problems.

My experiences have equipped me with the ability to understand that social inequalities exist everywhere. My mentors have shown me the true meaning of being a physician and caring for others. As a medical student, I know I have much room to grow. However, with the awareness I’ve gained from my patients, I am better able to understand what it truly means to be a physician, and I believe that in my attempts to consider all aspects of a patient, I come closer to being worthy of caring for them every day.

Monia Sigle is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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