The following is the (slightly amended) speech I presented at an IES all-staff conference, alumni reception, and board meeting. Enjoy.
My name is Jinit Sanjiv Desai, and I am a third-year at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying Neuroscience, Philosophy and Spanish while fulfilling the typical pre-medical requirements. I studied in Santiago, Chile during the summer of 2012 on IES’s Health Studies Program. Before beginning, I want to thank some people without whom I most definitely would not be here today. Thank you, mom, if you can hear me all the way out in the suburbs, for being a fantastic mom, always. Thank you IES and its entire staff for all the experiences and knowledge you have helped me to attain. And, lastly, I would like to thank Maricarmen, who is not just a phenomenal director but also an incredible human being.
So, why did I choose to study abroad? Well, I was born in India in 1992 and I immigrated to the United States with the rest of my family when I was 18 months old. Most of my life, simplicity was my faithful companion. Little WAS enough for me. Youth, though, as it happens, is characterized by change. When change is modest and predictable, it is readily accepted. When it is abrupt and unforeseen, a once sweet apple turns into a sour, brown one. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the fruit quite well.
My first three years of high school, I rode the train like the rest of my peers. Résumé building was all that mattered. If I devoted my life to realizing the definition of ‘excellence’ perpetuated by society, I would arrive at all the necessary junctions in due time: college, work, marriage, parenthood, success, travel and death. This illusion faded between the Augusts of 2010 and 2011. In a span of twelve months, Depression and Schizophrenia claimed my brother’s mind and eternal stillness my father’s heart. My linear conception of life cracked; the train derailed. I ditched the platform for the dock, the boxcar for the deck, and the caboose for the sail. No more tracks, I decided. No more delusions. I entered college preferring the wide, unceasing expanse of the sea, uncertainty and reality my only crew mates.
When I came upon the Summer Health Studies program during the spring of my freshman year, its logistic, intellectual and worldly facets seemed to be tailored to my interests. Half a year removed from my father’s passing, I needed a change of scenery and pace, and time to think and recalibrate. IES offered a program ripe with novelty, wonder and insight. An offer I couldn’t refuse.
The first week of classes was devoted to cultural learning. We (Maricarmen’s the beautiful young lady in the middle, by the way) visited the neighboring cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar and took a tour of Santiago as well. We learned about Chilean literature, history, sports, politics, customs and idioms. We learned to NOT tip taxi drivers. Chileans were supremely nice individuals, EXCEPT when driving. Augusto Pinochet, Alexis Sánchez, and Pablo Neruda are all as Chilean as wine, and each is firmly stitched into the fabric that is the national identity. Yet, the thoroughness and holism of my cultural adjustment I owe to one Señora Aurora Espinoza, both my host family and my host mom.
Señora worked most of her life and never married. But, a finer mother one would be hard-pressed to find. From the very first week, we ate dinner together. Exchanging memories, ideas and japes over soup, carne de soya and cake turned into a regular blessing. The first ten days or so, my Spanish was choppy and untrained. Even still, she would sit with me for hours, trying her hardest to understand me and help me understand her. Countless times I must’ve asked her to repeat herself, or use different words or circumlocution. Yet, she never once showed impatience, bother or disappointment. She encouraged me to ask if confused. She welcomed my curiosity, nurtured it. The more I talked to her, the more my Spanish improved, the more I felt like her son, and the more I felt Chilean.
Now, the two courses offered through this IES program, Spanish for Healthcare Practitioners and the Clinical Observation Internship, began with the start of the second week. The nursing school of la Pontificia Universidad Católica coordinated the Internship, which began with two weeks of seminars. We attended lectures given by a host of professors on a range of topics chosen to optimize our familiarity with pertinent areas of Chilean healthcare and the functioning of the system as a whole. Several PowerPoints and an exam later, we donned our white coats. The clinical observation segment of the internship was designed to not only expose the student to various medical specialties but to illuminate disparities as well. Hospitals pressed for resources and doctors usually attend patients with public health plans, while modern, business-orientated clinics cater to individuals with private plans. Sampling both ‘types’ of centers of health showed me much and taught me more.
I observed three surgeries in one day, including one in which a desiccated eyeball was removed. Surgery was an art much like sculpting, I realized. With scalpel instead of chisel and flesh instead of marble, surgeons transform the body at will with precision and deftness. I respect the art, but it’s not for me. The surgeries I saw were conducted almost entirely in silence. When I’m around people, I prefer noise.
In the emergency ward, the doctor I followed showed me how important TOUCH is in medicine. He made physical contact with every patient in one way or another. Handshakes and physical examinations were the most common, but sometimes, he would just hold a patient’s hand in both of his while he talked to them. And it made a difference. The technological advances in medicine have revolutionized the field, redefined outcomes and set new standards. Yet, I have difficulty imagining a machine replacing the touch of a doctor, all the while communicating the same trust, dedication and love in a couple short, subtle seconds of contact. This same doctor allowed me to listen in as he told a family that that their elderly, sickly mother was on the verge of death. He suggested they take her home, so that she may spend her last moments with her loved ones, and hopefully, die in peace. A peaceful death. I had forgotten such a thing existed. From the hustle and bustle of the emergency ward, I went on to the quiet of the Hemodialysis ward.
A Hemodialysis Unit serves individuals with inadequate renal functioning. Patients are hooked up to machines via a network of plastic tubes, and for the next four hours, this machine acts like a surrogate kidney, ridding the blood of potentially harmful substances. During the treatment, patients usually sleep, read or converse. Amidst the drawn shades, mechanical hissing and resting patients, tranquility reigned. But, a subtle uneasiness lingered in the air. To rely upon a machine in such a fashion takes away from values we consider inseparable from the human spirit: liberty and autonomy. Modern medicine granted these people the boon of life, while taking it away as well. I encountered a similar dichotomy in the maternity ward.
From only a few feet away, I witnessed the miracle of birth. I used to think that the bodily fluids, hysteria and placenta would divert my attention. But, I was wrong. All that seemed to matter was the precious little guagua (‘baby’ in Chilean Spanish), stretching its limbs, opening its eyes and testing out its lungs for the first time. A cry never sounded so heartwarming, so uplifting, so sweet. The baby, though, was not the only one crying. I shifted my attention to the mother, and found that she was weeping. When asked why by the nurse, she mentioned the words ‘parents’ and ‘never.’ I understood. My father would never get to look upon my children, either. Death and life sound so definite, so absolute. The only absolute, though, is that there are no absolutes. There is change. Sometimes it is sour; sometimes it is sweet; and sometimes, it is both.
I am in a program at UIC in which my peers and I have conditional acceptance into the University of Illinois’s Medical School. Before studying in Chile and partaking in the internship, my reasons as to why I wanted to be a doctor were simple. I liked helping people. I liked science. It was a profession that allowed for financial security and social standing. My reasons didn’t come from the heart. My reasoning was appropriate but not sincere. The internship changed all that. Now, to alleviate another’s suffering, when possible, seems to be the logical course of action. The words ‘Thank you’ stir the heartstrings when one earns them. The responsibility of healing the body and spirit is a privilege, an honor. After coming back from Chile, aspiring to be an ‘ordinary’ physician was no longer sufficient. My academic, professional and personal journeys converge upon the goal to be the best physician I can possibly be, a leader. I owe that to society, to humanity and to myself. The acclaimed Dr. Osler once said, ‘Medicine is a way of life.’ I understand that now.
The internship taught me much and more, but merely living within a different world is pedagogical in itself. Every culture has its pluses and minuses, and that of Chile is no exception. Chileans smoke too much, live by subversive gender stereotypes and pay little attention to environmental concerns. But, they also love their soccer, sweets and bread. They cherish their bars, clubs and besos. They love their country, and this love they share openly.
My freshman year at UIC, if nothing else, I was busy. I wanted to try everything. Always having something to do left little time for idle musings, little room for thoughts unwanted. In Chile, though, all sense of the word ‘obligation’ dissipated. I was on my own, and I owed fealty to no one but myself. In Chile, I lived to seek knowledge of a country, a language, a profession and a 19 year-old Indian with a buzz cut. Happiness was the top priority, no questions asked.
From my experience abroad, there is one group of memories in particular that I will never forget. One Wednesday afternoon, after the final Internship seminar, I chose to eat lunch in the School of Nursing instead of the cafeteria. I wanted to practice my Spanish. By starting a conversation with a local student, I could do just that and meet someone new in the process. The stranger I met that Wednesday, though, changed my life. She offered me a perspective of life in Chile through the eyes of someone my age also studying a healthcare profession. I shared with her my past, my culture and my beliefs, and learned she enjoyed sharing just as much. I learned colloquial phrases and cultural habits I otherwise would not have. I learned I could carry on a conversation in Spanish for eight hours straight. Our friendship progressed naturally, touching upon every kind and depth of emotion along the way. Pondering the improbability of it all left me at a loss for words; it still does. She made my time in Chile surreal, indescribable, magical, if you will. And to this day, she still helps me practice my Spanish.
In fact, Constanza and I got to practice in person for a couple days this summer (2013) — in Costa Rica.
To close, I want to return to the idea of simplicity. I mentioned in the opening few minutes of my talk that simplicity was no longer enough. It usually isn’t. But, there are exceptions — God, passion and love.
Religion is social, but faith is personal. It matters not if one puts faith in Jesus, Krishna, Mohammed, Moses or a giant flying spaghetti monster. Being ‘holy’ depends not on memorizing scripture, asceticism or avoiding pork. Whilst one’s concept of God leaves the individual and those around him/her happy, who’s to say it is insufficient or incorrect?
Passion. Why does one go through fifteen years of rigorous schooling to be a Cardiac Surgeon? How do musicians and athletes reach the magic number of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery? How does one stay up all night reading, time and time again? Recognizing, understanding and acting upon a passion together dismiss fear of failure and water the roots of one’s joy. Passion is an explanation in and of itself.
And, finally, love, the sturdiest material out of which one can construct their seafaring vessel. Love is beautiful and terrifying. It is enlightening and mind numbing. It is reason and insanity. Shakespeare once said, “Love all, trust a few, and do wrong to none.” Love all, for love is elemental, basic, undying. When melancholy and nostalgia grip me, I remind myself that the grays and blacks of anguish hail in comparison to the brilliant hues of the spectacle that is our existence. Chile reminded me that for all the ugly there is in the world, there’s just as much beauty. One can choose to let it come when it pleases, or one can choose to seek it out in in all that s/he does.
Thank you, ladies and gentleman, for your time and attention.