Compared to the nurses and doctors running around Northern Hospital, as a medical student I have ample time to attend ward rounds, watch procedures, and talk to patients. I usually choose the last option because I either have a timetable clash, or haven't been fast enough to catch a procedure. Interns have been happy to point me to patients who don’t see many visitors, have been stuck in the hospital for weeks, and are keen to chat for hours. Over the past month I’ve spoken to many patients who were generous enough to donate their time to a lost medical student on her first rotation who needed a sense of purpose, a sense that she accomplished something on the ward today. And that is how I met Beth.
I’ll call her Beth for the sake of anonymity. Her real name is Arabic because she emigrated from Lebanon in 1963. Beth had nine siblings. Had. Two of them died as soldiers in the war, and that is when her parents had enough. She told me, with a tremor in her voice, about how they gathered up all the money they could to send her to Australia. She was the eldest, at 19 years of age, and had the best chance. They sent her to live with a fellow Lebanese family. Beth informed me that she used to be beautiful – waving me away when I tried to interrupt with ‘but you still are!’ – and that she would turn heads everywhere. The wife of the family she lived with became suspicious. She’d listen to the fights between the husband and wife in the other room, reaching a higher and higher crescendo every night. Soon Beth was shoved out the door in a foreign country where she couldn’t even read the street signs. Beth’s eyes watered, but her gaze was fixed straight into mine when she said, “I didn’t know where to go. I wandered for a day, and ended up in a park. There was bread scattered on the grass that people had left for pigeons. I leapt on it and ate and ate and ate. I felt like less than an animal.”
Beth slept in the park for 3 days, until one night she heard something familiar under the street lights. Arabic, her native language. Her pale hands gesticulated wildly, like frightened birds, as she told me. “I jumped up! I couldn’t believe there were people here who spoke Arabic! I could not help myself; I started screaming help me, help me, help me! At the top of my lungs. I grabbed onto the man’s jacket and wouldn’t let go.”
The men were from Lebanon, like Beth, and took her to their church. Beth lived there, with warm showers and fresh food, until she secured a job as a fruit picker on a local farm. She practiced her English in the orchards. She says she doesn’t know what would have happened to her if she hadn’t found them that night.
Beth taught me many things. I listened to her pan-systolic murmur and I learnt about glaucoma medication from reading her chart. But meeting Beth, and many other patients in similar situations, made me appreciate the challenges many people face when they arrive in Australia. I have learnt about signs and symptoms, but I have also learnt much more. Learning about the complex and unsurmountable barriers our patients have had to overcome has helped me develop compassion not only as a future medical practitioner, but also as a human being.