I love to travel. I am curious about other cultures, love to try new foods, meet new people and trek to historical sites. But with a full-time job and 2 high school daughters still at home, my adventures can be more limited than I wish. Going to work each day provides me with the ability to act as an armchair traveler. In the course of a week, I can see patients from Laos, Russia, China, India, Mexico and Africa. Some of these patients are new immigrants to this country; others have been here for a longer time but are still considered first generation. Although they may have become more integrated into American culture in their everyday life, pregnancy and childbirth often reveal more traditional beliefs.
In talking with patients and their families I often learn more than I could in a book, as most of what they believe is oral tradition and not published in the literature. Women from the Hmong culture often wear a red thread bracelet that is thought to ward off bad spirits and keep their spirit intact. They eat only warm foods after childbirth. Indian women often rely on their mothers or mother-in-law to provide help with childcare and cooking for the first few months after delivery. Some cultures have a fear of contraception as causing future inability to have children. Immigrant families often come from countries where family is both physically and emotionally close. Health decisions for an individual are made after consultation with other family members.
While I find all of these traditions interesting and worth further research, it can also make my day much more difficult. New immigrants often do not speak or understand English well enough and need the services of an interpreter. The fees for the interpreter service are paid by the clinic. Speaking thru an interpreter can lengthen the visit to twice the normal time and still not provide the same amount of information. Some cultures are distrustful of western medicine and patients may not believe test results or diagnosis. Needing to explain the medical problem numerous times to different family members when there is a sense of urgency ( labor and delivery) can make me feel like tearing my hair out!
And then life has a way of helping me to reset my expectations. Last week my interfaith women’s group (Tapestry) hosted 2 immigrant high school students from Green Card Voices. These young women eloquently shared their stories of coming to this country as young teenagers, without speaking the language and after leaving behind close family members in their native countries. They moved in with family in MN that they had not seen in over 10 years and were quickly enrolled in school. These family members were working long hours and didn’t have the opportunity to help the students with their integration into a new school or culture. The students expressed appreciation for those Minnesotans who smiled at them on the bus, helped them in school as tutors and teachers and were willing to reach out to their families with assistance. Might I have been one of those who could provide that extra smile or help with understanding of a medical diagnosis?
Immigration has been a looming topic in the upcoming election. Many Americans fear immigrants and their different dress, religions, language and behaviors. My patients and the students from Green Card Voices are no different from the majority of Americans – they want to be loved, respected and to work hard for a better future for themselves. They are especially appreciative of the freedoms that this country affords – freedoms that were worth risking their futures for.
Seeing one of my immigrant patients at the end of the office day can often make me late leaving the office. This happened a few weeks ago as I was trying to make my daughters evening soccer game. As I was rushing to get into my car, I passed the patient sitting on a bench outside the office building. She was patiently waiting for her ride as she did not drive. I reflected on the stories of the students – their long bus rides on public transportation to a school across the metro area that specialized in integrating newly immigrated high school students. As an American female, I can drive, work and provide the fees for my children to participate in activities outside of school. These are opportunities that women in the developing world would never be able to dream of. Taking the extra time each day to provide health care to an immigrant patient is part of my “give-back” for the gift of being part of this country.
If you see someone today who may be “different”, whether from another country, different skin color, disabled or speaking a foreign language – please take the time to smile and offer assistance if needed. Consider this gesture your way of “traveling” to a foreign land without leaving American soil.