Some years ago, I traveled with a medical team to western China. Our Chinese hosts took us to a number of urban hospitals in Gansu Province, a region just south of the Gobi Desert. At one point, however, our hosts took us to a very rural outpost, to a small clinic with a small, but very dedicated staff of young medical technicians and one physician. As we toured the small facility, one of the local elders engaged us in conversation (see the photo). He expressed his delight that Westerners had traveled to his village to show an interest in what they were doing. Through our translator, we had a delightful conversation with this very jovial man who said, “It’s so good to meet you and know that even though we look so different, we’re united by this one thing: we so desire to ease another person’s suffering.”
In fact, you don’t have to leave UAB Hospital to know the truth of that elder’s remark. Just read the names and you travel the globe: Yang, Davuluri, Angarwal, Buczek, Jeyarajan, Salvador, Schneider, Jones. The ancestors of those names send roots back into the history of every continent on the planet, the names of doctors and nurses that focused their attention on me long enough to bring me through a very tough and threatening time in my life. And I’m struck with the fact that humanity’s capacity for incredible excellence and compassion – the desire to ease another person’s suffering – is profoundly intercultural.
Indeed, UAB Medicine is a global crossroads, as so many academic medical centers around the world tend to be. Whenever I sit in the atrium of the North Pavilion, I see plenty of folks whose ancestors, like mine, came here from Europe and we don’t wear any special clothing beyond the attire that identifies our hospital discipline. But I’ll also see the turbans of Sikh men and the hijabs of Muslim women, along with the yarmulkes of Jewish men. In this hospital, the faces, complexions, and statures of every ethnic group imaginable weave a mosaic of humanity with vast differences in cultural and religious practices. But whether they’re from the Indian subcontinent, the East African savannah, or the Australian Outback, they’re all united in the mission of medical excellence, of easing another’s suffering.
Reality, you see, stubbornly levels the playing field. It doesn’t matter if you’re Anglo or Latino, a necrotic adenopathy calls for a biopsy. It doesn’t matter if your mom spoke Maori or your dad prays facing Mecca, a metastatic lymph node needs excision. It doesn’t matter if you’re Protestant or Catholic, when you see the glowing spots on the PET scan, you take particular notice. Left alone, a malignancy will eventually kill you, no matter what language you speak. Certain things are true above, beyond, and deeper than cultural or religious practices and when I contemplate that, I know much more unites us than divides us.
That’s another lesson this experience with cancer has brought home to me. Compassion, competence and caring define the best of what it means to be human. It didn’t matter to me at all what accent carried the phrase to my ears, “Well, it looks like we got it all!” Right away, it eased my suffering.