Just a few days after returning from our time in Tanzania I had an experience that helped to reinforce and clarify an important aspect regarding our immersion in that culture. I received a call that morning from one of our pediatric hospice case managers informing me that one of our children on service was actively dying. The child’s mom was asking me to come to their home. I began my drive to the child’s home and my route took me through Baltimore City.
I drove south on MLK Jr. Boulevard. As I thought about the child and family I was about to see I found my thoughts returning at moments to memories and images of children and families we had visited in Tanzania. My drive that morning was taking me through west Baltimore. On my right was a section of low-income housing and on my left stood the campus of the University of Maryland Medical Center. As I looked at the hospital I could not help but recall images and scenes of Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital in Arusha. And the contrast between these two settings could not have been more stark for me that morning. We had only been back in the United States for about 72 hours. The time there was still fresh in my mind and it was a surreal experience to look upon the University Medical Center Campus and remember little Nkoaranga hospital and the culture surrounding it.
Now I know that it is of little value to draw comparisons in such a way because the settings and contexts for these two hospitals are so very different – one a small rural community hospital in an impoverished and resource limited nation and the other an internationally recognized teaching hospital rich with resources – seemingly unlimited by comparison. So if it is unrealistic to draw comparisons or parallels between these settings then what was I to learn from the contrasting images and feelings of all that was running through me that morning?
As I reflected more about this my thoughts began to center not on the differences between these two medical settings – one identified by its first world technologically rich medical prowess and the other by its third world limitations. Rather I found myself considering and focusing on what I discovered and experienced as being the same among us. What I learned working among my colleagues in Tanzania is not so much something new as it is a reinforcement of a truth for all of us who choose to serve as healthcare practitioners. And that truth is that what we are to bring first and foremost to those we serve are hearts of servants willing to bear witness to the pain and struggle of those we are caring for. This is true whether we serve in the region of Arusha Tanzania or in the region of Greater Baltimore Maryland. What is common for us is that we are willing to come close to the suffering of another human being. It is our genuine display of warmth, love, and compassion in the face of another’s suffering that will be recognized, felt, and valued by those we serve.
There are many differences between our cultures and between the cultures of our medical systems … language, customs, tools, approach, interventions, medicines to name just a few. But what I have learned and re-learned and now bring with renewed vigor to my own practice is how the power of human compassion bridges cultures. Compassion brings a healing presence in spite of the absence of medical technology. And indeed all the systems, medicines, and interventions available can still fail to heal in the absence of compassionate human presence.
The Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital Palliative Care team serves their patients out of hearts filled with compassion just as we do here at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The tools of our trade differ in the context of our settings but the human heart filled with a compassionate call and longing to serve those in need is what we have in common. Whatever our role it is our compassionate presence that will help us to bridge the cultural divides between us. My friends in Tanzania have helped me to remember just how important is this truth. I am blessed to have been a part of this mission.