By Audrey Hertenstein
We shuffled through the metal detector and were directed to stand with our backs against a wall – the final step in an hour long process to enter the Florence, AZ Detention Center to visit with detainees the organization Mariposas sin Fronteras had been communicating with to offer assistances such as letters of community support and a friendly voice to reach out to. The guards ushered me and the other Loyola students through several locked doors and into a visitation room where we were only allowed one hour to meet, rules which seemed much too strict for a person whose only crime had been seeking asylum within our borders…
The person I met with, whom I will call Carlos here, greeted me with a smile and stood to shake my hand. This would be one of two times visitors and detainees were allowed to make physical contact with the loved one they had come so far to see. Over the course of our conversation, I was amazed by Carlos’s hope and motivation to help other people in the detention center despite his own situation. He was unable to return to his home county due to the danger to his life his previous job and the current political situation put him in. He had come to the US seeking asylum 8 years ago and has since been detained in detention centers awaiting his case. When his case is finally heard, he will know if a judge will grant him the chance to fulfill his hope of being able to work safely in a country where he can support his wife and two children still living in Central America.
Though every person’s story is unique, I was reminded by far too many patient’s stories I had heard during my third year clerkships. Though physically removed from the desert landscape of Arizona, the stories of the elderly man who had lost a son while crossing the border to rejoin his family and the family gathered around their young father receiving dialysis for renal failure acquired due to days of dehydration during his journey North were still fresh in my mind. As students, the role we most often play is that of a listener- a receiver of the stories and knowledge patients and people have to pass on to us. Being present with Carlos, I was reminded that throughout our career path, the balance we must struggle to maintain is to retain this role of listener with our increasing responsibility.
The stories that patients carry with them into an exam room can be just as pertinent to their health and well-being as the information found in their medical chart. As future healers, we are told that the answer to a diagnosis lies within the patient’s story. If we can remember to be as present and active of a listener as the first time we heard a patient’s story, maybe we can be just as present when listening to the injustices experienced by our neighbors. The answer as to how we can support, stand with, or accompany the journey of another lies within their story. What we need to do is sit with that person and listen.
Audrey Hertenstein is a third-year medical student at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
A special thanks to Borderlinks which has helped to make these experiences possible,