“Hello! Who are you, where do you come from?” They asked with their hand offered forward. I was starting my fellowship at the Kleinert Hand Institute.
I was always puzzled when I was asked this question. I was a visible minority even back in my hometown, although I was born there. What do they want to know? Where I am originally from? Where I was born and grew up? Where I went for university, or the program I graduated from?
When all my friends were graduating university and acquiring their first jobs, I was still midway through medical school, struggling through books and clinical rotations. I would listen to their stories of office friends and “work families” in awe – and wonder, when will I have this?
Fast forward through completing medical school, giving my steps, applying for residency, interview season… All those years erased the aforementioned questions from my mind. I was so focused on exams and landing a residency position in a foreign country, that I completely forgot about my yearning to be a working woman. On Match Day, though, having a job became a reality. In just a few months, I would be working for the first time in my life, in a distant place, in a hospital where I knew no one and no one knew me. Suddenly, residency went from being my dream to my fear.
Guatemala is a very diverse country; it is considered pluricultural, multiethnic, and multilingual. I grew up in Guatemala City and was raised in a very culturally aware family (my mother is a social scientist and my father is a public health specialist). In medical school, I took medical anthropology and learned of the importance of understanding local culture (the social behavior and norms in human societies) when treating patients. I did not know some of the concepts I learned in class would be so important in my personal life and career ahead. I took this class before and while doing a three-month community medicine rotation in one of Guatemala’s municipalities, San Juan Sacatepéquez. In this community, that is a 45-minute drive away from Guatemala City, we cared predominantly for patients of Mayan descent. In class, we learned about the Kakchiquel ethnic group, their culture and plural health system. We explored topics related to cultural change, cultural relativism, ethnomedicine, culture shock and ethnocentrism.
When I look back at the past couple of years that I’ve spent as an internal medicine resident in the US, the major feeling is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and pride. It is not an easy accomplishment to come to a new land to embark on a 3-year journey (more for others) of learning and growing. What made this journey easier is the friendliness and acceptance of everybody here.
Let me start by giving you a brief summary of my background and upbringing. I grew up in 3 different continents; Europe (UK), Asia (Oman), and Africa (Egypt). I had only visited the US once during that time period; as a 12-year-old for a week-long trip to Disneyworld. I graduated from medical school in Egypt and I knew all along that it was my dream to come to the US to do my residency and learn at the forefront of medical education.