Sewing my heart on my sleeve (& other skills I’ve learned in India)

I always take one breath before I step into the hospital. I need to take one moment to get ready.
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As I step into the hospital lobby (a large waiting space for registration), I feel dozens of eyes turn to me. Some eyes are afflicted with cataracts, others with glaucoma, and a few healthy eyes of caretakers who accompany their elderly for a day of treatment.
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Having what may be the only pair of blue eyes in a 100 mile radius is bound to draw attention. If I saw someone with purple eyes, I have to confess that I would stare too. I especially can’t blame the people who may have never seen blue eyes before, or even someone with white skin. Yet from my perspective, all I feel are daggers. I guess I should’ve expected some attention when I decided to spend 10 weeks in India.
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When I was young, I was horribly quiet. I would never talk to anyone I didn’t know, and I tried to avoid as much attention as I could. But over time, I shed the social shell that kept me guarded from interactions with unfamiliar people. My natural aversion to staring persists, as I want to hide in shame whenever a pair of eyes linger for too long. But that’s started to change this trip. I’ve learned to let go of any shame I feel, to wear my heart on my sleeve, and to keep my head up even when I feel a hundred daggers weighing me down.
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Learning to let go of my fear of judgment has been straightforward. Either I keep walking through stares or I give up. But the more difficult type of learning I’ve encountered has been asking questions of myself.
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Although most would want a trip like this to be one of clarity, where one discovers the unknown country in order to reach a greater depth of self discovery, I’ve found that this trip has lead to more obscurity than transparency. I have learned about India, not much compared to the professors at Penn who study it, but a great amount relative to what I knew before. However, I’ve found myself inquiring about myself more than I’ve been affirming who I believe I am.
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But this is not bad in the slightest.
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“Why am I not as enthused as the other interns to watch a surgery in the operating room?” is a better question now than it would be in my first surgery of residency. I have to admit that taking a person apart, fixing them, and sewing them up is fascinating, yet I haven’t discovered the admiration that the other Aravind interns exude in the OR.
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Although a common piece of advice goes “you’ll figure out what you want to do along the way”, most people are still expected to have a concrete career path in mind. A more grown-up version of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” frequently echoes on Penn’s campus, such that almost every student has a rehearsed answer. For me, that mechanical answer is rattled off so frequently that my desired career exists in an echo chamber. My answer becomes something unquestionable without complete understanding, like the concept of electron affinity that I trust my chemistry professor didn’t create the night before. But in India, I find it much easier to question what my dream career may be with a few thousand miles of distance.
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There are not only questions of doubt that came about from this experience. Questions from innate curiosity have led me to question different processes that patients travel along as if they’re floating down a river. From one perspective, all you may see is a blockage of fifty patients in the glaucoma clinic’s river. But if you change the way you look at it, for example from the doctor’s office to the cubicles of the nurses, you may see a fallen tree in the river impeding all movement by patients. I’ve found myself to be more interested in the structure and organization of the hospital relative to my other interns (although I lack their surgical intrigue).
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While this trip is stretching my boundary for comfort, the questions and perspective it’s providing me with for how to frame my future is invaluable, and worth the cost that is my fear of judgment. Despite my optimism, I’m both eager and afraid to see what else I may learn over the coming weeks.

One thought on “Sewing my heart on my sleeve (& other skills I’ve learned in India)

  1. Hi Thomas,

    You have certainly have a talent for expressing your deeply felt thoughts cogently and honestly; I have read several CASI posts and am impressed by your writing.
    Being in a foreign culture certainly leads to contemplation and self examination. I hope you learn from your experiences in Madurai (my husband is from Chennai) and you keep and open mind.
    Indian people are very curious and immediately ask personal questions – it is SOP there – a sort of Socratic method for daily life.
    Keeping on learning…

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About uhlerthomas

Class of 2019, pursuing one degree in biology and another in business with a concentration in healthcare management. Intern at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai for the summer of 2016.