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The Value of Presence in Medicine

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I leapt out of bed, splashed some water on my face, and headed to the lobby. Moments later, Zhuo arrived. Zhuo told me through tears that her mother had suddenly become sick and was rushed to the hospital. She did not know what was wrong. As I listened, I was acutely aware I was in a foreign country, unlicensed as a physician, and with absolutely no knowledge of the language.

I arrived at the hospital, the only Westerner in the place. I felt as if I were in an old movie, passing wards filled with patients on mattresses in ancient iron frames, all looking expectantly at the visitors. This time, I was the main attraction.

Because Zhuo’s mother was now considered a hero, she was given the best, a tiny “private room”, usually for two patients. The other bed was empty and Zhuo’s brother and the sister I had met the previous day were in the room. Her mother was still dressed in her bedclothes from the night before, spotted on the front with vomit. She was fading in and out of consciousness.

Zhuo brought me her mother’s medical chart, in Chinese. Zhuo translated Chinese to English. I noticed numbers and assumed 0.9% probably referred to normal saline. I translated from numbers to medical care.

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