Student Perspective 1
By Torrey Halbert, OMS-II
Western University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific
I never fully understood how profoundly language barriers could impact medical care until I traveled to Thailand and worked in Burmese refugee camps. I thought I was well-prepared for what I assumed would be the most challenging aspects of the trip: an eleven mile hike into the village, showering with water buckets, sleeping on the tile floor and working outside in the humidity and heat. However, what ended up being the most arduous component was encountering patients in deep pain and not having the luxury to ask them on my own what was wrong. Yes, we had translators with us on the trip, but with the volume of patients most of the villagers had to wait hours before they could speak to someone who could understand them fluently.
On my first day, I became acutely aware of the extensive needs of my patients and the language barrier between us, and I felt overwhelmed by my perceived inadequacy to provide help. The medical tools I had backpacked into the village with, including my stethoscope and ophthalmoscope, now seemed minuscule. As I looked down at the ophthalmoscope in my hand, and the cold metal edges of the tool grazed my skin, I recalled an important lesson that altered the trajectory of my trip. As an osteopathic medical student, one of the first lessons I came to understand is that my hands are my greatest tools. In that moment, I remembered that my palapatory senses were able to transcend any language barrier. As long as my hands were able to understand the feedback of the body, I could still provide my patients’ with the care they needed without a complete understanding of their language.
In order to be as efficient as possible, I asked one of the translators how to say a few phrases to help me with my osteopathic medical treatment (OMT) including: “Where is your pain?” and “does this hurt?” With a newfound enthusiasm, I pulled my first patient to my makeshift medical table made of a concrete bench and a twin size mattress. After my palapatory assessment, I found her to have somatic dysfunction in her lumbar spine and pelvis. Her somatic dysfunction was due to the position the women squat in the kitchen while cooking all day. I treated her with soft tissue, articulatory and muscle energy. At the end of the treatment, she had a huge smile on her face and gave me a big thumbs up. A few minutes later, my patient came back with three of her friends. I continued to treat them and each time they left with a big smile and thumbs up. Before I knew it, I had a growing line of close to thirty patients waiting for OMT. As I walked through the village, people would come out of their houses and point at me and then to their backs. Each day my line would grow longer, and before I knew it, I had treated the whole village with OMT.
As our last day of clinic quickly approached, my excitement for my OMT treatments began to fade. I knew that I was successful in treating their pain acutely, but if lifestyle changes were not implemented I knew their pain would return upon my departure. It saddened me to think my treatments were only temporary. As I walked somberly to my backpack to grab my water bottle, I noticed the village children doing soft tissue on each other. Unbeknown to me, they had been watching me all week treat their moms and dads. Their enthusiasm for OMT excited me and gave me hope that once I left they would be able to continue to treat those in their village for years to come. On our last day, I sat with the children and taught them how to do soft tissue on the thoracic and lumbar spine, leaving them with the lesson that their hands could be healing tools as well.