A reflective farewell

My last week at Aravind was by far the most hectic out of the ten when I was there. Even my last day ended with an afternoon and evening spent in the records department; desperately scouring for the occupation of certain patients through hurried scribbles and misplaced files. Although I had the chance to say goodbye to all the hospital staff that supported me throughout my project, it wasn’t quite with the same sentiment as I would’ve liked it to be. Much like eating a delicious meal under a time constraint, I wasn’t able to take in everything that I could’ve with no rush.


It wasn’t until I was dropping off candy for glaucoma clinic staff (the other interns and I noticed that offering food was commonplace for significant events) that I realized how familiar the clinic was. As I’d mapped out the clinic, I noticed the particular horseshoe shape made by the main hallways in the clinic. For all the hundreds of times I’d walked the length of the horseshoe, either looking for a certain doctor or new patients in the waiting areas, I had never noticed how progressively comfortable I became. Each day, new patients were confused as to why I was sitting in one of the cold metal chairs the clinic provided but the medical staff grew accustomed to me as the weeks dragged on. Initially, I only had to interrupt a stare by a nurse to ask if Dr. George was in, but in my last week I would have to get into the same nurse’s field of vision and address her by name if I had any hope of finding Dr. George.


The clinic was also a place where I accidentally stumbled into a point of reflection in my last week that made me question which values are most important to me.


Throughout my life, I’ve always viewed education as something valuable. This view was one shared by my family. Growing up next to my brother and sister, I understood by seeing their life choices that going to higher education is something that should accompany adulthood. My sister graduated high school early to move onto college, and moved onto an MD-PhD program after that. My brother learned when he was young that he wanted to build a career around music, but he still went to Boston to gain an education. Although there are purposeful and fruitful career paths void of education, my family also placed emphasis on the benefits that come from education.


My father’s father was the son of German immigrants, and never had the opportunity to go to school. Before he passed, I remember him describing at length the conditions he worked in when he was only a child. He spoke of the risks associated with working in a textile mill, saying that only the children employed were small enough to reach beneath the spinning wheels and pull out any clutter with their tiny hands. But if he had been too careless in his task, he wouldn’t have been lucky enough to keep his hand.  Despite his lack of schooling, he made a great life for himself and his family by becoming a jack-of-all-trades and taking on a wide range of jobs throughout his life.


My dad was the first person in his family poised for academia; the oldest son of a couple finally settled and stable. He took every opportunity given to him, graduating high school a year early (and skipping graduation to my grandmother’s dismay) and moving directly onto a tuition-free stay at a small Catholic school in Seattle. My mother was also the first woman in her family to go to school, conveniently at the same small Catholic school in Seattle. After their rendezvous and subsequent marriage, my mom became a full-time (and overtime) nurse while my dad pursued a PhD in biochemistry. Eventually, my parents moved out to the Midwest after a faculty position in neuroscience at the University of Michigan became available for my dad while a role in their health system opened for my mom.


Seeing how different members of my family have both created opportunities for themselves and earned achievements from those opportunities set expectations high for me, but have also inspired me to realize the potential I have. Regardless, I see the most important part of an education as not the opportunities that are made, but the freedom of thought gained. Having the ability to challenge different ideas that are presented to you, to recognize attempts to manipulate and deceive, to test the knowledge that you consider to be true, are all so valuable in the world we live in. Having control over knowledge and more importantly the ability to learn has been a crucial facet of oppressive governments that seek to exploit its citizens. From my view, creating my own opinions and refining my own thoughts while challenging outside perspectives has always been the most important part of my education.


One day in glaucoma clinic, I was sitting, patiently anticipating a new wave of patients into the waiting area that I was settled in. I began leafing through surveys that had been completed, and noticed that almost every patient surveyed in that mass of paper had no education or barely completed the equivalent of elementary school. I started to wonder how differently my values must differ from the average patient in the clinic. If the next few years of my life are bound to yield one degree from a grab-bag of MD, PhD, or MBA, while most patients had only experienced a few years of schooling, the gulf in difference between how important I consider education compared to how important the average patient considers education must be great.


At that moment, I felt some degree of sympathy. I thought of voter bribing that I heard occurs in some pockets of India, where uneducated individuals are given small sums of money in exchange for a vote. In an ideal world, each person would be able to earn an education and have the power to challenge different ideas.  I thought that the present situation was generally unfortunate. But my next thought turned me on my heel from a sympathizer into a hypocrite.


As I looked around in the clinic, I didn’t see patients; I saw families. Some of the surveys I held indicated that patients traveled hundreds of kilometers to see a doctor. Despite these great differences, the patient almost always had some family with them. One man had only his wife, who almost never let the lock of their arms break. Another man was accompanied by his two children, who were switching between active states of play and passive naps on their father’s belly. Even one young man had his younger brother tag along with him, if only for him to play on his phone in the waiting area.


I took a minute to look at myself, and all I saw was how alone I was. Time has stretched to over two months since I had last laid eyes on my parents. My siblings and I hadn’t met up since Christmas. I had last seen most of my extended family in Seattle about a year ago. All the people in my life who helped me create the values and morals that guide me had been out of my life for months now. What was the point of valuing education, if I can’t even see and appreciate the people who had helped me develop that value and every other value that made me the person I am today?


The patients really should have been pitying me; someone whose view became so narrow that he can’t see his own ignorance to his most important value.

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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.