I believe in community.
I am a resident physician at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center. When my father was a medical resident in 1960, he lived on the ninth floor. I drive in every day from my home in a safe suburb, walk through the ethereal light of the morning sun falling on pink blossoms, radiant against the hospital’s drab concrete exterior, and enter a different yet familiar world.
When I arrive at my clinic, it is teeming with people. The line of patients waiting to register for their appointments spills into the hallway outside. The majority of our patients speak only Spanish. They are kind, warm-hearted, and exceedingly grateful for the care they receive. As I treat them, I also try to learn from them; they have overcome and still continue to struggle against far greater obstacles than I have ever encountered.
Jimmy arrives for a follow-up visit. A wiry 67 year-old African American man, he is homeless, but smiley and affable. He has an eye infection and is unable to fill his prescription for new antibiotics, but fortunately he is healing well. It has been a cold winter, and I worry about Jimmy sleeping outside. He plans to take shelter in the hospital waiting room overnight and promises to register for a bed in the Mission in the morning.
A physician approaches me to discuss a patient at the Hansen’s Disease Clinic. Given the diversity of our patient population, I should no longer be shocked by the myriad diseases I see, and yet I am astounded that there is an entire clinic dedicated to patients with leprosy. I overbook my schedule to see the patient sooner than the current wait time of six months. The doctor thanks me, and as he heads out the door adds, “Oh yeah, he only speaks Korean.” I wonder if I will need a translator or if, like another of my Korean patients, he speaks enough Spanish for us to communicate.
My next patient is a boy from Juvenile Hall. Gang violence is rife in neighborhoods a mere ten miles from my home. These incarcerated adolescents always affect me. Some of them probably have committed heinous crimes. I don’t ask; I don’t want to know. They are unfailingly polite, and their hardened exteriors soften when I place a hand on their shoulder or explain to them their diagnoses. I sense that they are yearning for kindness and respect.
Los Angeles is at once a bastion of economic, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, and also a segregated city. The hospital is a microcosm of the metropolis, without the geographic barriers that separate its residents. My patients’ life histories differ from one another’s and from my own, but I feel we all share common ground. We all contribute to the human embroidery, and the resultant picture is a brilliant one. How bland it would be if we were all the same. I only hope that I can enrich their lives as they do mine.
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