One of my earliest memories is hearing air raid sirens going off and enthusiastically running for the trench in the back of my house. As an eight-year-old kid, it was all fun and adventure: Indian jets racing overhead, bomb blasts and war. The fact that my parents had different expressions bothered me some, but didn’t subtract from the excitement of the situation.
That was 1971 in Lahore, Pakistan. We were living on a hospital compound where my father worked as a medical missionary with United Christian Hospital. The hospital buildings had large red crosses painted on the roofs to prevent them from being bombed by the Indian pilots. It worked for us, but the surrounding villages weren’t so lucky. Invariably the injured would begin pouring in through our gates and the reality of the violence and brutality of the war would hit home, even to me. Later, those memories would have a significant impact on my decision to go to medical school and Northwestern.
What we do with our lives and how we respond to the situations that present themselves to us is of immense importance not just for each of us, but for our families, friends and entire communities. As physicians, every one of us with rare exception, is positioned to be of service when the need arises. However, the need doesn’t need to arise; it is always there and in great abundance. So often, students apply to medical school because they want to serve others, usually in inner cities, overseas or in other disadvantaged settings. What happens to that calling over the subsequent years?
One of the great privileges we have as physicians is to be of service to people — especially those sick, marginalized, poor, injured or desperate. There are very few vocations that offer the opportunity for this. It’s common to think that we are the ones sacrificing time, effort and money in these endeavors when, in fact, it is to our immense benefit. St. Francis of Assisi said that the beggar is there not solely for his benefit but for our own, so we may have the opportunity to show compassion.
Like many of you, I have volunteered throughout the years. Most recently I committed to helping Syrian refugees. Since 2013, I have traveled a few times a year to the Middle East and Greece to provide medical care to these unfortunate people. My group works in established refugee camps and, more commonly, along the Syrian border in towns and fields, wherever there are people needing help who do not have ready access to healthcare. Sometimes that is in a dusty field and other times in a Bedouin tent. At the end of the week, we will have seen well over a thousand people, mainly women and children.
The situation in Syria and the plight of its people is one of our modern age’s great tragedies. What I do during these weeklong trips seems so infinitesimally small compared to the big picture. I think of Mother Teresa explaining that you can only treat one at a time and that is all. But for that one person, it is enough. And I come back to my private practice in Oregon rejuvenated and energized, feeling that I again experienced the essence of what it means to be a physician in the most basic terms, free of electronic medical records, paperwork, insurance questions and schedules.
After an especially long and tiring day seeing literally hundreds of women and children in one of our clinics, I sat down on a wooden bench. I let my eyes close and felt the exhaustion seep into my bones. A few minutes had passed when I felt a small tap on my knee. When I opened my eyes I saw a small boy looking at me with a smile on his face, his grandmother standing in the background. I recognized him as one of my patients from earlier that day. After our eyes met, he gave me a hug. It’s a hug I will never forget: a small Syrian refugee boy in a war-ravaged land showing compassion and comfort to me, of all people.
It is why we do what we do. We cannot forget why we chose to be physicians. We need it. Our world needs it. Now more than at any other time.