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I stood there holding my stethoscope, listening to a five year-old child’s back, nervously searching for any abnormality, trying to control my nerves and focus on my work. I shifted my stethoscope to another spot, the sweat on my back now beading through my shirt. I could not rid myself of the thought that I could mess up while taking the patient’s vital signs, as doing so was crucial for entire process, and I had one of the most important roles in my group that day. As I struggled out some Spanish I had learned upon landing in Costa Rica just a few days ago, I thought I heard a faint crackle. I doubted my ears and checked again, choking out something that resembled “otra vez” to get the coughing child to breathe deeply one more time. When I confirmed the crackling sound, I reported my findings to the recorder in my group.
When we finished the general check-up we called for one of the two volunteer doctors to come diagnose the sick child. The doctor re-examined him to make sure our results were correct. She concluded the little child had cystic fibrosis, and explained that it was a genetic disease that created mucus blockage in the lungs; as of now it is incurable, and fatal to the patient without proper treatment. I honestly was surprised to find out that his disease was so serious, as I mostly saw patients who had light fevers or colds.
As I watched him playing happily with another volunteer’s stethoscope — and then listened to the doctor calmly explain the situation to his parents — I wondered if the child would have been as cheerful if he had known the full extent of his disease. His family was poor, so he could not get proper treatment. Even if his parents managed to arrange an appointment with a hospital, it was likely that he would have to wait for years due to the number of people on the waitlist. As I thought of his sickness and where he lived, my issues back in America seemed suddenly trivial. Back home I would complain when my Internet was down for a few hours, while people living in his community would not even have basic access to it, or its endless pages of medical information. I would complain of the lack of variety in my dinner, while he and his neighbors would often forgo dinner since they would not have enough money to round up three meals a day. I would complain that it was too chilly inside my house while in his village the houses were built of a layer of tin sheets that provided no insulation and little cover from the rain.
Before this trip, I had only seen abject poverty on the news and documentaries. I felt that the people living in these distant slums were unfortunate, but would not give them much thought afterward. But after my trip I would catch myself thinking about the people I met in Costa Rica. They remind me to appreciate what I have. Just as I was trained in Costa Rica to use a stethoscope to listen for subtleties in the body, I have trained myself to become more aware of the complexities of the world around me.
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