doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Spanish? In Uganda?

“Es un día de turquesa!” I belted out as Jemella and I walked down the path to the adult medicine ward at Naggalama Hospital. I was commenting on the fact that four of us had randomly worn turquoise shirts and khaki pants that day. Obviously, no one here speaks Spanish. It’s the weirdest thing. Being here in Uganda, hearing the local language (Luganda) all around me, I suddenly have the urge to speak the only foreign language I do know — Spanish.

This is what I’ve concluded about that impulse: Most of the international traveling I’ve done has been in South America. I’m fluent in Spanish, so language wasn’t an issue there. I told my taxi driver where to go, ordered pisco sours, bought fresh bread, and did pretty much everything else without a problem. Uganda is a different case entirely. I know all of four words in Luganda. With so many strange sounds flying around, I think I’m grasping at something with both foreign and familiar flavors (Spanish). While not helpful in the slightest, the urge remains. And it remains unhelpful, though entertaining.

Dr. Randi Diamond and me, out in the field doing palliative care house calls — in our matching turquoise and khaki outfits.


“I will not repeat”

Dr. Jemella Raymore, the ward nurse, and I must have talked with him for a half hour. He was a slight man, wearing black pants too big for his spindly legs. His shirt, camel colored with blue plaid sleeves and collar, was only buttoned halfway up. He was seated on his hospital bed, which was covered with a purple- and gold-flowered fleece blanket. He kept his hands folded and his eyes down, speaking softly, almost inaudibly, as if he weren’t even here. Or didn’t want to be. We were almost the same age, I realized as I looked at his chart. He looked so sad. He’d swallowed poison two days ago and been brought in on a motorcycle. He survived the suicide attempt, and was about to be discharged. But he was clearly still in great distress. So his doctor consulted the palliative care team. 

This man’s case isn’t technically a palliative care case. But it seems that any time feelings are implicated, the palliative care team gets called. (Under normal circumstances, this means calling the local palliative care nurse and her assistants, but it also means calling the American doctors when they’re visiting.) There’s unease around feelings, and what doctors can, or should, do about them. So Jemella and I talked to this man. We listened to his story, one I guarantee no one else at the hospital had heard: his family and his wife have been verbally abusing him. He told us that as a result of this abuse, he’d thought about suicide before, even picking up the poison, but always putting it back down again — until a few days ago. We asked him about his life. About his children, his work, what brings him joy. We encouraged him that his life matters — to his friends, and to us, even though we may be strangers. We encouraged him that finding someone to talk to about his struggles, whether a religious figure or a friend, is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. We told him he’s a strong person for enduring so much pain. 

We also asked whether he still felt like hurting himself. At that, he finally made eye contact. The nurse translated his words as this: “I will not repeat.”