I remember the first time we met. I walked into her hospital room with a little trepidation about the pocketful of knowledge scoured from her chart regarding her medical history and descent.
I could see the veil of pain, discomfort, and weariness on her face. I could see the question marks stamped in her gaze to me. I was acutely aware of the fact this pain and weariness was not of a surgical or medical origin. There was a discerned understanding within me that haunted memories were carried in the folds of her heart and stamped impressions on her face.
Silently, I pulled the Ipad on wheels towards us to ring in my communication lifeline. A Facetime call was placed to the medical translation organization, which supplies translators of any language of the globe to us. We provide her medical number to begin our slow and awkward introduction to one another. Our initial conversation would begin with each of us speaking to the translator on the screen and who then restrung our words across the canyon of cultural differences and language barriers to one another.
Painstakingly I learn the juggle of talking in two to three sentences at once and then waiting for the translator to build our communication bridge in her Arabic language. I explain who I am, what my purpose is today, and ask of her physical pain and understanding of her surgical precautions we must work within today.
Slowly, we thread the ebb and flow of our broken dialogue through the needle hole of our virtually present translator to build a physical therapist/patient relationship on one single goal she desires most in her heart. She wants to walk again one day.
Each day, our treatment sessions were tediously worked through with the painful process of learning to trust each other while building her physical strength.
Our relationship grew more comfortable as we learned ways to communicate with one another based on prior treatment sessions, in addition to hand gestures, body language, and our eyes. We began to trust our own mode of communication with one another to a pivotal point of no longer needing the lifeline of a translator for every session.
One day, I decided to call up the translator for assistance in a conversation with my patient about her progress and how to prepare for discharge to her home environment. I was prepared to discuss home safety, find out more about support system in the home, and arrange for equipment. What started as a conversation about her future turned into a testimony of her past:
After saving for 25 years, her husband and she happily traveled from their village to the big city of Aleppo in her native country of Syria. They settled in for a future they had worked so hard to finally begin. Aleppo was the largest and most prosperous city in the country at the time.
Then, in an instant, her life crumbled around her. As the bombs ripped through the city, her new home and all they worked for disintegrated along with the streets and buildings. All the promises the city housed for these residents turned to rubble and dust. They found themselves running for their lives.
With nothing more than the clothes on their back, they followed the surge of empty handed and desperate Syrians across the borders to refugee camps.
In a tent city on the soil of Turkey, she began to put the pieces of the latest events together. Frantically she searched out hope of contacting her four grown children. Days were spent searching for answers. What will become of us? Where will we go now? No longer in her home country, yet not a citizen of the land she has found herself in, she is left with no more energy to process the horrors she just witnessed, or the horrors she must live through in this new reality.
Days bled into months and word reached the refugees that other countries are devising a plan to offer assistance out of the nameless, hopeless deluge of tents. Finally, her husband received word that he and his wife would receive travel graces to come to America. But, because of the vast number of people receiving assistance, there was no guarantee of when her grown children’s families would receive their own lottery ticket of exodus.
Alas, they found themselves in America, but not without a heavy price. It took many weeks to discover the rest of her family’s fate. All of her children are now searching out new beginnings in other countries including Germany, Iraq, and Turkey. Like seeds in the wind, her family will learn to root on the soil they landed on and start over again.
The journey from Aleppo, the nights of sleeping in a tent in Turkey, and the journey to America did not fare well on my new patient. By the time they arrived here, her osteoporotic hips had failed her and her husband was carrying her.
Now I sit in a therapy gym with nothing to offer for her story but my hand grasping hers and my steady and compassionate gaze for her to reflect her pain into.
Humbly, I drove home from work that day with her voice echoing her heartbroken story in Arabic through my soul.
She saw that day I could not fathom the horrors she experienced, I could not even utter the words “I’m sorry” and they equal the depth of sorrow she poured on my ears. My speechless trickle of a tear down my cheek became the salty trail between my heart and hers. Our few remaining days of her two-week stay had a different air surrounding them.
We built a fond attachment to one another. When I entered her room, a happy and bright smile crossed her face, almost making it to her eyes, which housed bottomless wells of life experiences I will never truly understand. We began to communicate in our own special ticks and sign language providing a strange scene to the others in the rehab gym as they watched us work together.
On my last day with this brave woman, I knew I would likely never see her again. We embraced. We reviewed our daily ritual of Arabic and English words we had learned in our broken conversations about weather, elephants, children, and tattoos.
She was babbling away as we hugged. I pay attention to her eyes in our usual way as we somehow learned the innate talent of having conversation with nothing more than ripples of emotion pouring out of our eyes.
I saw a fondness slightly deeper pooling over in her eyes. She smiled and grabbed my hand into both of hers and pulled me emphatically towards her heart. Then as clear as I’ve ever heard her speak an English word, she said, “Goodbye. I love you.”
My eyes misted. I felt a mother hen’s pride exchange between us, two mothers who know a different galaxy of struggle, hardship, devotion, and love. My tears were a bipolar mixture of maternal attachment and learned, professional detachment fighting one another.
I smiled, prepared for this moment. I knew I had to share my sentiments with her before I had even arrived to work that morning. I had a message waiting for her too. My message was going to be how proud I was of her progress. I was going to rave of her courage and hard work to walk, even if it was clumsily and only ten feet. Instead, tears streamed from those haunting eyes as I proudly responded with my new final message to her in her native language:
I love you