By Samuel Harris, MD
I was born and raised in a small country in sub-Saharan Africa settled by freed slaves who returned from the United States in the 1800s to begin their own free and democratic nation. They called it Liberia—the land of liberty—as they came from slavery to full-fledged freedom. The capital city is even named after U.S. President James Monroe. Nearly 200 years after it was established, this country was plunged into a brutal civil war that left the nation’s infrastructure ruined and more than 250,000 of its 2.5 million citizens dead. At that time there was complete breakdown of law and order, death was commonplace, there were no schools, and of course in the midst of all this, healthcare was totally non-existent.
It was in this environment that I grew up. By the age of 12, I had seen so much disease, strife, anguish and the suffering of so many of my people. I saw people in our village die from commonly treatable diseases like malaria, cholera, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even hunger and the lack of clean and decent potable water. Death was commonplace. I was seriously ill many times. I don’t know how I survived except by the grace of God. Many of my childhood friends and even people older and much stronger than me succumbed to the cold hands of death in those hard times either from disease, starvation or the bullet from a gun or shrapnel from a bomb.
Prior to those horrifying days, I used to gather used syringes and needles that were improperly disposed of at the local clinic. In an attempt to play doctor, I would make a concoction of herbs and use these needles and syringes to inject the grasshoppers and caterpillars I would catch in the field.
My parents later told me they always knew that I would someday be a doctor. But personally, I came to the conclusion that I had to be a doctor or some kind of healthcare worker in those dark days of countless deaths in our village. Perhaps the most profound and personally touching event that led to my desire to become a doctor is the story of my cousin.
By the age of 12, I had seen so much disease, strife, anguish and the suffering of so many people. I saw people in our village die from commonly treatable diseases like malaria, cholera, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even hunger and the lack of clean and decent potable water. Death was commonplace.
…I came to the conclusion that I had to be a doctor or some kind of healthcare worker in those dark days of countless deaths in our village.
Perhaps the most profound and personally touching event that led to my desire to become a doctor is the story of my cousin. Her name was Welekema (Love).
She was a very happy and beautiful child. We all played together in the rain, in the creek down the hill just below the village, went to Sunday school together. She had big eyes and a smile that was very welcoming and unforgettable. She was strong and always looking for ways to help. We used to argue about who would be the greatest person amongst us kids.
One day, she fell sick with high fever, nausea, vomiting. She could not eat even the little that was available. Of course, she could not play either. We used to sit by the little thatched hut she laid in, waiting and hoping she would recover and come out to play. Yet, she only seemed to get weaker by the day. There was no healthcare worker. The elders brought in traditional herbs, but it seemed to make no difference. One day, she started to shake violently. Now I know she was having a febrile seizure. The local herbalist came and proclaimed her possessed by an evil spirit. Now I know how ignorant that was. They chanted and invoked the spirits of the ancestors to come and evict the evil spirit away, but her seizures would only stop temporarily with cold water that was spilled on her shivering body only to return to those same violent convulsions again. She stopped crying. Eventually the seizures stopped, and so did her breathing. Welekema never came to play with us again.
I had never felt so helpless in my life. I was 14 years old then, and I decided I never wanted to be so helpless again. Therefore, as I grew up, I have always yearned to be a doctor to touch as many lives as I can. I could not help Welekema, but I know her spirit lives in me daily, and I strive to show it in the way I care for my patients and how I work with colleagues and non-medical staff in my workplace.
Samuel Harris, MD, is a TeamHealth hospitalist at Roane Medical Center in Harriman, Tennessee.
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