Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Notes from Hurricane Katrina: A doctor on a mission of mercy

The distinguished doctor, professor and author Abraham Verghese is at the pinnacle of success and fame in his field, but he still goes out on missions of mercy. When evacuees from Hurricane Katrina began arriving at the San Antonio airport, he signed up as a physician volunteer for the 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift. He mused about his experience in The New York Times Sunday magazine. Here is some of what he wrote:

On the way, riding down dark, deserted streets, I thought of driiving in for night shifts in the ICU as an intern many years ago, and how I would try to steel myself, as if putting on armor.

He goes on to describe various patients and how important it was to listen to them. “Hesitantly, I asked each patient, whre did you spend the last five days?” I wanted to reconcile the person in front of me with the terrible images on television. But as the night wore on, I understood that they needed me to ask; not to ask was to not honor their ordeal.”

His concluding story concerns a semi-literate but dignified and vigorous black man in his 70s. He needed medicine for his blood sugar and blood pressure. As Verghese figured out the prescriptions, he listened to the man’s story of waiting on a ledge with his feet in the water for two days. He was rescued by a boat, then was left waiting on a bridge for two more days. “Doc,” he said to Verghese, “they treat refugees in other countries better than they treat us.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Verghese. “I’m so sorry.”

The man rose, shouldered his garbage bag of worldly possessions, and extended his hand. “Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. All they got to say is sorry. All they got to say is sorry.”

Verghese concludes, “Driving home, I remembered my own metaphor of strapping on armor. The years have shown that there is no armor. There never was. The willingness to be wounded may be all we have to offer.