It was a crowded coffee shop and I was nervous to make an appearance. I had just started taking a course in American Sign Language (ASL) and one of my very first homework assignments was to attend a Deaf event- a social gathering where you meet and interact with members of the Deaf community. I found myself reeling as I continued questioning how I might engage with a crowd that I could not easily communicate with. I had only been enrolled in the course for a few weeks, and I was terrified at the prospect of conversing with strangers in a new language.
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Despite my reservations, I finally gathered the courage to enter the coffee shop and eventually engaged with a Deaf gentleman whose native language was ASL. He patiently waited for me to formulate sentences and in return took the time to teach me new signs and phrases. The interaction challenged the social conventions I thought to be true. Despite a language barrier, we were able to converse a little and started to form a connection. I came to realize if we challenge our preconceptions and comfort zones, immersion in a new language and culture is just one example that can profoundly impact how we foster human connections and will ultimately enable us to develop global mindsets.
Deaf events are an example of how we can break down the social barriers between different cultures, like the hearing and Deaf world, to foster community and cohesiveness. Similarly, overcoming social and cultural barriers are important aspects of medicine that can dramatically improve the quality of healthcare for disadvantaged populations. Since patient-centered communication is a critical component for understanding patient needs, I believe that more physicians need training in ASL. This realization helped me develop a genuine interest working with Deaf individuals in the medical field inspiring me to complete an ASL interpreting program. Working with medically underserved populations taught me that patients need a physician that goes beyond treating ailments. They need a clinician with a deep conviction to transform the lives surrounding them. My interpreting experience with Dr. Brown and a Deaf patient confirmed the importance of the latter.
Dr. Brown asked some standard questions, and as I was interpreting for the patient, her family members started speaking on her behalf stating she had the flu. The family started to argue, and as he recognized the patient’s frustration, Dr. Brown asked the family if they would step outside. He tried a new approach introducing himself using ASL and signed the phrase “how do you feel?” She immediately burst into tears and was describing how she had been experiencing sleepless nights, loss of appetite, and loss of interest in essentially everything—she was struggling with depression.
After Dr. Brown’s consultation with the patient, the family came back into the exam room and Dr. Brown facilitated discussion regarding the patient’s wellbeing. Ultimately, he arranged for the entire family to attend counseling and, additionally, recommended the patient seek individualized mental health services. Dr. Brown went beyond simply assessing an ailment of the family’s initial concern; his compassion allowed him to recognize the symptoms of a larger problem that were being overshadowed by the patient’s family. The shared decision-making between Dr. Brown and the patient exemplified the powerful yet tender relationship between a patient and physician. It also demonstrated the importance of going beyond a traditional clinical assessment and treating the patient as an individual with specific needs. I also realized Dr. Brown’s ability to converse in ASL not only established communication, he also formed a personal connection and established trust between him and the patient which are important elements of patient-centered care. The adaptability and creative problem-solving skills required by physicians to engage with patients are some of the challenging and rewarding features I love about medicine.
With the development of a globalized society, the need for promoting compassion and cultural awareness is essential for the progression of medicine. Gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, or even language preferences are just some examples that can potentially impact how a patient may receive preferential care. Although we can recognize that these prejudicial and discriminatory features are ingrained in society, the globalization of healthcare lends us a unique opportunity to serve disadvantaged individuals of all backgrounds. The opportunity to be a part of this movement, committed to serving everybody including those in vulnerable and underserved populations, affirms my passion for medicine and longing to become a physician. Addressing prejudice and discrimination in medicine benefits us all. As a physician, I will empathically engage with patients and continuously support them with whatever challenges they may face. With a global mindset, I hope to address my patients’ needs beyond their symptoms and enable them to live healthy and fulfilling lives.