The Bookworm

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Medicine in Translation” by Danielle Ofri

c.2010, Beacon Press $24.95

For several months now, you’ve been keeping a tight eye on Washington. This health-care debate has your attention and you’ve got definite opinions. You’ve also got questions. How, for instance, will reform affect you and your family? Will insurance be cheaper or more costly, better or worse? And how will it affect your wallet when your taxes are used to insure the uninsured?

Before you dwell on that last concern, read “Medicine in Translation” by Danielle Ofri. On this thorny issue, you may have already made up your mind. Then again, you may change it.

Every Monday after lunchtime, Dr. Danielle Ofri has an appointment with someone whose injuries are unimaginable. Registered with the Survivors of Torture program (or SOT), these patients have seen devastating horrors and their scars run far deeper than the physical.

There was Samuel, the victim of an acid attack. Mohammad, who felt imprisoned in the Land of the Free. A man threatened with death because he’s gay. Another who witnessed the disemboweling of a friend. Victims of political or cultural wars, displaced from homeland and family. Ofri says that her colleagues care for these patients, too, but each doctor has just one or two a week. Any more would be too hard.

As a physician at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Ofri cares for more than just SOT patients. Julia Barquero, a woman with devastating health issues, arrived in New York by walking through Guatemala. Elderly Dr. Chan left his frail, Alzheimer’s-stricken wife in America when he returned to China, figuring she’d forget him soon anyhow. Juan Moreno, like many foreign-born patients, declined to participate in medical decision-making, preferring that someone in authority make the call.

Most of Ofri’s patients speak English, more or less, but some require translators, which could be frustrating. More frustrating is the unknown: Does someone legitimately need medication or is he dealing it?

Stressed and not wanting her children to grow up with a single-language handicap, Ofri seized the opportunity of a one-year sabbatical in Costa Rica. But when she learned she was pregnant, she also learned that language barriers can be overcome and that health care is not the same around the world.

Timely, beautiful, and heartbreaking, “Medicine in Translation” couldn’t have been published at a better time. When it seems that health care (and lack thereof) is on everyone’s mind, this book adds a quiet reminder.

Ofri, herself the child of immigrants, writes with humanity, poignancy and a shot of humor. I was astounded at some of the stories that she gently teased from people who would really rather forget, and I loved the way she wove her own journey in with that of her patients. I shuddered while reading this book, I smiled and I can’t wait for her next one.

If you’re concerned about health care for the most hidden of society or if you just want a book to make you think, pick up this one. “Medicine in Translation” is just what the doctor ordered.

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