Medellín, Colombia

May 5, 2019

What I learned in a Colombian hospital

This past week, I got to spend most of a day in one of Medellín's excellent hospitals.

I sat in a chair as nurses poked and doctors prodded and the outpatient ward whirled around me. (Don't worry, things turned out fine.)

But as the hours spun by, just me there alone in the outpatient ward, I was struck over and over, by two things:

The first was my privilege.

I speak Spanish well enough to get around in my everyday life here - but a weird, hard-to-describe thing happening to one of my legs? That's well out of my wheelhouse. I can't communicate or understand what someone is telling me in a medical context. Yet as I sat there in my hospital gown, I wasn't feeling panicked. I wasn't googling all the words. At some point, I noticed. This is weird.

As I looked deeper, I saw the reason for my calm. Somewhere, I knew that someone would speak English. That even though there was no good reason for it, there would be doctors in this hospital that could speak my first language better than I spoke the language of the country I was in.

This understanding happened without me really thinking about it - and explained the lack of panic I noticed. As white dude from the US, my whole life, the world has kind of made sure that I don't fall through the cracks. This stuff just happens, without me doing anything.

Growing up, I spent some time in hospitals in the US for one thing after another, and recall scenes of family members translating for someone in the hospital's care, desperately trying to communicate complex topics across lines of language. I remember the indifference, the annoyance that often surrounded them. You got here, so speak English, it went.

And yet there I sat, without any of those worries - and for absolutely no good reason. I didn't earn it, I didn't work for it. I was just born in a certain place at a certain time with a handful of genes.

There's a lot of good conversation around privilege these days and what it means. That was my experience of it this week. It continues to leave me unsettled.

The second thing that stuck with me was how fragile all of this is.

A couple weeks ago, the roof and central spire of the ageless Notre Dame burned to the ground. I heard the news from my sister, flicked open a web browser, and like the rest of the world, stared at images and videos with my mouth open.

But with the core structure still standing and the knowledge that it will be rebuilt, my main emotion about Notre Dame wasn't loss or grief - but this deep sense of Wow. You never really know, do you?

Again, there in the hospital ward. On the bed a few curtains down, some poor girl sounded like she was vomiting out every internal organ in her body. The guy next to me came in with his buddy, searing with pain, and only really settled once they'd hooked him up to an IV drip full of painkillers and sedatives.

The entire hospital staff, rushing around, as a last line of defense against you never really know in life.

I felt the fear of my own experience, the way my mind raced through what-if conditions and what-if-this-is-it's. What if I only get this little bit that's left today?

I was reminded of how small, how fragile, how improbable this body of mine is. How lucky I've been that it's taken me this far. How small a price things like eating well, exercising, and getting regular checkups are to help tip the scales that it'll take me a bit further.

And how much - for all the peace I feel about what'll happen in that eventual someday - I'm not ready to say goodbye yet.

I don't really have a clever way to tie this one up. Sometimes life shakes you. It shook me, this week.

Thanks for being along on the journey.

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw this week was going to be the endcap to the biggest long-form, global story told in our time, Avengers: Endgame. But then I saw this video of Alua Arthur. She's a death doula. And she is my new favorite person in humanity. :) If you want your socks charmed off, and to just leave smiling and uplifted about human beings, that video is worth your time. :)

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