Notes from a Healer

Ma’salama redux

Brian T. Maurer

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I recognized the face at the window immediately.  It was a face I thought I would never see again.

Four years ago this father stopped by our office to pick up his daughters’ health records.  After nearly 5 years of living in the United States, this family was returning to Syria, their native land.  He and his brothers had come to the States to start a local painting business.  Although their diligence and hard work paid off, the economic recession eventually decimated it.  What little savings they had amassed were used to return to Syria.

I had taken care of his children during their sojourn here.  When they left, the eldest daughter was 5 years old, the second was 3 and the youngest was 18 months of age.  Now at 9, 7 and 5 years of age, they were back.  The father stopped by to see if he could schedule school entrance physical examinations for the children.

“When did you come back to the States?” I asked him.

“Twelve days ago,” he said.

“Things pretty bad over there?”

“Things are bad,” he said.  He was a young man, but his face was drawn.  The only thing vibrant was the ice-green color of his eyes.

“We’ll do our best to accommodate you,” I said.

He nodded his thanks.

His youngest daughter’s name appeared on my schedule the following afternoon.  One of the medical assistants had given her a colorful johnny top to wear.  It was much too big for her, but the brilliant blue robe offset the long blonde curls that cascaded halfway down her back.  She had her father’s ice-green eyes.

He rose from the chair when I entered the room.  I noticed the deep furrows in his cheeks, the neatly trimmed moustache, the rough skin on his thickened palms.  “So you have been back nearly 2 weeks,” I said.

“Two weeks tomorrow,” he said.

“Things are bad in Syria,” I said.

“Yes, they are very bad.  We lost everything: house, business, savings.  Everything is gone.”

“You worked so hard when you were here before,” I said.

“Yes.  It was hard to lose it all.  But at least we escaped with our lives.  At least my children are safe here.”

“Did they see much violence there?”

He nodded his head.  “It was very bad.  I didn’t know how bad it affected them.  The other day when we drove down the interstate we passed through some areas of construction.  My daughters asked if we had to stop.  They thought there were military check points.  They were afraid we might be searched.  In Syria everywhere you go, you have to stop.  You get into line and wait.  Here, when the big jets go overhead, my daughters duck.  They are afraid for the bombs, even though I tell them there are no bombs here.”

“Did you lose family in the fighting?”

“Not my family, but my wife’s family, yes.  Her uncle took a lot of shrapnel in the belly and in the legs.  It was very bad.”

I proceeded with the exam.  The little girl looked to be in good health.  Of course, there was the burning question of what was going on inside her head, but that would be something we wouldn’t know for quite some time.

She cried when I administered the vaccines.  Her father comforted her, whispering in her ear.

“Bring her back in 2 days so we can read the tuberculosis test.  Then we can sign off on the school entrance form and she can start kindergarten.

“Thank you,” he said.

I nearly responded with the words “Welcome home.”  But for him home was not here; home was there.  Here it was safe, there was danger.  Better to be safe in a strange place than to live in constant fear for your life.  But home was not here.

So I said “Best of luck” instead, mostly because I had no idea what else to say to someone who has been through what he and his family have been through.

“We will get back on our feet soon,” he said.

That, I suppose, is an example of what you might call the universal American spirit.

About the Author

  • Photo of Brian T. MaurerBrian T. Maurer has practiced pediatric medicine as a Physician Assistant for the past three decades.  As a clinician, he has always gravitated toward the humane aspect in patient care—what he calls the soul of medicine.  Over the past decade, Mr. Maurer has explored the illness narrative as a tool to enhance the education of medical students and cultivate an appreciation for the delivery of humane medical care.  His first book, Patients Are a Virtue, recently reviewed in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, is a collection of patient vignettes illustrating what Sir William Osler called “the poetry of the commonplace” in clinical medical practice. Interested readers can read more of the author's writings at his website and blog.

  • Published: June 27, 2013