I Can Only Imagine


I snapped this photo on one of our first days of the medical mission.

In January, 2001, as a fourth year medical student, I finagled my way onto a disaster relief team, and traveled to El Salvador with supplies and personnel to aid the areas hit hardest by the 7.6 magnitude earthquake. I had even cancelled a residency interview to be able to fly out on a day’s notice.

Our team was a bit hodgepodge:  a pediatrician and a nurse who specialized in these missions, and an assortment of attendings, residents and students who had varied practical experience. At that point in my life, I had completed several extended trips working in rural areas of central America, but never after a natural disaster.

We connected with local medical teams and sort of threw ourselves into the work, doing whatever. One night, our team had nowhere to sleep other than the floor of a clinic. The doctors and nurses were so concerned for our comfort; they helped move furniture so that we could unroll our sleeping bags.

Late that night, I woke with a start as something was stinging my face. I swiped away a flying bug of some kind, and felt my lower lip start to itch and swell.

My med student mind started churning:

Oh my god, it’s probably a Reduviid bug, and it probably just gave me Chagas disease

My mind raced on, trying to remember if there was anything one could do after receiving a bite from one of these “Kissing Bugs” in order to avoid full-blown Trypanosomiasis…

As I lay awake, sweating away with hypochondriasis, there were several strong aftershocks. There had been many aftershocks for our whole trip, but as I was lying on a concrete floor, they felt much stronger.

Oh my god, I wonder if this old concrete clinic will hold up. What if it collapses…

I sat up. It was complete darkness. No electricity. I could only hear quiet breathing, someone snoring… Everyone on the team was asleep.

Should I get up and go outside? I don’t know what’s out there. I can’t see anything. There’s nowhere safe to go…

My breathing accelerated to hyperventilation. I felt like I was going to faint, or vomit. The idea of someone on the team awakening to me vomiting horrified me… And, I wouldn’t be able to clean myself up in this darkness. That’s what snapped me out of it.

It’s a panic attack… It’s just a panic attack…

I hugged my knees and curled forward to try to get my breathing under control. Minutes ticked by… hours later, dawn saved me. As soon as there was a little light, I was able to just get up and go to the clinic bathroom to wash up, brush my teeth… I felt Okay.

That was fifteen years ago. I thought of that long-ago panic attack, after I read about Aylan.

He was the Syrian toddler whose body washed up onto a Turkish beach, and his story has shaken up a lot of people. 

It’s so, so hard for me, and for most of us who live comfortably, to imagine what it might be like for these refugees.  These are regular people, many of them educated, working, middle-class families, just like us. What would make them risk their lives like that?

I go back to that tropical panic attack, incited by insects and discomfort and aftershocks, and I remember that vivid fear, a deep sense that I was not safe, anywhere.

Then, I imagine that the people sleeping around me were my family. My husband, my children… and that we had nowhere else to go. That this is what it was like every night. Every. Single. Night.

And that’s the closest I can get to imagining what it must be like for these refugee families.

It doesn’t take much to take down our society’s infrastructure. (Think it can’t happen here in the U.S.? Hello, Hurricane Katrina.) In Aylan’s case, it was war. His homeland is obliterated. This is not his fault, nor his parent’s fault.

The richest countries of this world have adopted a “Let them eat cake” attitude towards the suffering. I’m not the only person who has felt that this is reminiscent of the world’s attitude during World War 2. It’s easy to rationalize silence and inertia when we’re talking about “other” people… whether they be Muslims, or Jews.

But, what can we do? “We” meaning, you and me. Normal people.

Well, it’s not much, but here’s what I’ve been doing:

I’ve been posting relevant articles on Facebook. They may only get two or three “likes”, and usually from the same people, but if it raises awareness for even one person, it’s worth it.

I signed a petition to allow more Syrian refugees into the U.S.

I donated to a couple of agencies: Save the Children is a solid organization, extremely well-rated on Charity Navigator. Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) is a relatively new agency that specifically focuses on sea search and rescue operations. I scouted them out, they seem legit. They got fifty bucks from me.

I dream of doing more hands-on work, like I did back in the day. I know I’ll get back to it…

Meantime, I’ll write about it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.