When I saw that an event called “Medicine Around the World: Healing from a Global Perspective” was taking place on campus, I thought it would be right up my alley as a medical anthropologist.
The event, sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse program and the Pegasus Physician Writers group, was a reading in which physicians shared some beautiful pieces they had written about their experiences providing medical services across the globe, including Haiti, Mexico, Austria, and Vietnam. The musings were less about culture than they were about poverty, conflict, disasters, and war, and what it’s like to seek health and healing in such overwhelming circumstances.
All five physicians’ writings brought to life a difficult scene. Julia Huemer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, wrote an aching piece about interviewing a young Somalian refugee in an Austrian winter just before Christmas. She conveys the utter incapacity of her survey to capture his experience, and an uneasy awareness that he is the one doing her a favor, indulging her intrusion. Here is a teenager too childlike to carry the weight of adulthood, yet who carries it with more grounded grace than many adults. Her holiday, once marked by stressful emptiness, is not transformed in any heartwarming sense, but at least becomes more heavy, more real.
Ali Tahvildari, MD, a radiologist, composed a “Ghazal for Global Health,” a poetic form used to convey love, loss, and longing, in this case pleading for the privileged to care about foreign suffering. Mali Mann, MD, a psychiatrist, chronicled her experience being one of “los medicos volodores” who fly to Mexico, where she works with orphaned children suffering severe emotional traumas. Henry Ward Trueblood, MD, a trauma surgeon, read an excerpt from his forthcoming book about being a surgeon in Vietnam during the war, where he worked in a tragically understaffed civilian hospital. The extreme environment pushed him to test the limits of his surgical competence, which both challenged him to grow and taught him to respect his own limits when he was way out of his league.
The piece that brought in the most “culture” in a classic anthropological sense was that of William Meffert, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon who read a fictional account of being trapped in a collapsed building in Haiti while on a medical mission after the earthquake. In it, he grappled with how religion – a Haitian mix of voodoo and Catholicism – played a vital role in the life of his assistant. As an atheist, the protagonist vacillated between being baffled, annoyed, and comforted in a way he couldn’t quite grasp; in a way that circled between dream and reality, the supernatural was a means toward healing.
Previously: Stanford doctor-author bring historic figure Jonas Salk to life, Stanford med student chronicles his experiences working in rural Kenya, Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”, “Write what you know”: Anesthesiologist-author Rick Novak discusses his debut novel, For a group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them “make sense” of their experiences, and Exploring global health through historical literature
Photo by Hanna Sorensson