“¡Hola! Me llamo Michelle. ¿Como se llama?” I introduced myself to my new patient and struggled to repeat his name. I finally got it right, and he smiled as I shook his hand. “¡Mucho gusto!” It’s nice to meet you! This one simple act of respect completely changed my patient visits from the day before.
I was in San Miguel, El Salvador ending my internship with Medical Missions Outreach (MMO) on an optical team mission trip. As a pre-med student, I did not know what to expect on an optical team trip. On the other MMO trips I have been on, I shadowed physicians and other medical providers. Before leaving the United States this time, I did not expect to learn much that I could use in my future career. However, I learned an important lesson about interacting with patients that I had missed on my previous trips.
Before describing what I learned, let me go back to where I started. This trip was unique in that we held each clinic day in a new location. The first site tested our team’s ability to be flexible… “no, fluid, because flexible is too rigid!” The building consisted of three small rooms, and we were able to squeeze only three patients into the room where we were fitting glasses. I can get a little claustrophobic at times, and the warm, crowded room contributed to more of an attitude of survival for me than one of ministry. I still enjoyed my first day of clinic, but I felt like I was having trouble connecting with my patients. They came and went without really making eye contact with me, and we mostly relied on the translators for communication. At the end of the day, I looked back and wondered if my patients had felt respected; had I shown them the love of Christ?
In El Salvador, I was running each patient visit on my own rather than simply shadowing other providers. This forced me to take a hard look at how I was approaching my patients. After the first clinic, I thought about a suggestion MMO had given to the providers – to talk directly to the patient instead of to the translator. I decided to work on that the next day of clinic, as well as to address my patients by name. It changed everything. While before many patients would not look me in the eye, now they would meet my gaze with a smile as I greeted them by name. It changed my attitude as well. I started seeing my patients with new eyes. I began truly seeing them as people made in the image of God. As I treated them more like Christ, they became more willing to open up to me.
My change of view allowed me to better minister to my patients so that they also could see with new eyes. One incredible patient I met was an elderly gentleman named Casimiro. I had to help him up the stairs because he had a limp, and his eyesight was so poor that he could hardly see where he was going. His left eye was scarred, and he had almost no vision out of it. I asked him what happened, and he told me something flew up into his eye while he was working. He was about seventy years old and still working as a farmer. I used the spherical trial lens and found that his prescription was +6! He also had cataracts in his good eye. I wondered how he was able to see to work. I searched through our inventory, and God provided the perfect pair of prescription eyeglasses for him! Lastly, I gave him a big pair of sunglasses to wear over his new glasses to protect him from the sun and debris. I looked him in the eye as my translator stood behind me. “Make sure you wear your glasses. Your eyes are as bad as mine, and if I don’t wear my glasses I run into things!” Now able to see my facial expressions, he returned my smile and laughed.
Jesus calls us to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mat. 19:19), to care for “orphans and widows” (James 1:27), and to visit the sick (Mat. 25:36). “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Mat. 25:40). We are to treat others in a way that shows them the love of Christ – in a way that “points them to the Great Physician.” On this trip to El Salvador, I learned that a respectful approach is vital to showing my patients Christ’s love. Jesus sent Paul to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” (Acts 26:18). May we treat others in a way that shows them Christ’s love. May He use us to open the eyes of the lost!