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Beautiful People: What I Learned from My Medical Missions

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Saturday, 14th November ,2015

Beautiful people

You live in the same world as I do
But somehow I never noticed
You before today
I'm ashamed to say

Beautiful people
We share the same back door
And it isn't right
We never met before
But then
We may never meet again
If I weren't afraid you'd laugh at me
I would run and take all your hands
And I'd gather everyone together for a day
And when we gather'd
I'll pass buttons out that say
Beautiful people
Then you'd never have to be alone
'Cause there'll always be someone
With the same button on as you
Include him in everything you do.

Beautiful people
You ride the same subway
As I do ev'ry morning
That's got to tell you something
We've got so much in common
I go the same direction that you do
So if you take care of me
Maybe I'll take care of you

Beautiful people
You look like friends of mine
And it's about time
That someone said it here and now
I make a vow that some time, somehow
I'll have a meeting
Invite ev'ryone you know
I'll pass out buttons to
The ones who come to show
Beautiful people
Never have to be alone
'Cause there'll always be someone
With the same button on as you
Include him in ev'rything you do
He may be sitting right next to you
He may be beautiful people too
And if you take care of him
Maybe I'll take care of you
And if you take care of him
Maybe I'll take care of you...


I drove to work this morning and turned on Melanie Safka’s CD.  Ironically, the above song “Beautiful People” was playing. Melanie was a singer in the 1970s with many songs about peace and love.

Earlier this week, I came back from a short medical mission trip to Costa Rica, organized by the Paul Chester's Children Foundation,where I and several other surgeons performed a procedure for many women patients called “tubal ligation,” to permanently prevent another pregnancy.  We, as a medical mission team, had a meaningful time being together as a group of caregivers for three days, caring for patients who otherwise couldn’t afford us.

 Unlike in the U.S., where one can have elective surgeries scheduled within a week or two, people in third world countries have to wait for years for many procedures.  We were told by physicians in Costa Rica how a baby with club foot can wait from three to five years for surgical corrections.  Women can wait for seven years to have their tubes tied, explaining why I saw quite a few women in their early twenties with four or five children.  If you have an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) problem in the area of Costa Rica where we were, you are out of luck, since there are no ENT surgeons there!  You can travel to the capital more than three hours away for surgery.   

Every time I go on a mission to the impoverished areas outside the US and meet the locals, I realize how similar we are as humans, despite our different circumstances in life.  We all, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, short or tall, big or small, black or white, wish to love and to be loved, to have the capacity to provide and protect those we call friends and families.  The brief bond of humanity between us, those who come to care for, and those who receive care, is palpable.  I have never witnessed or sensed any danger from people in third world areas.  The patients and families have always been grateful for my help and I grateful for their suffering, as it reminded me of my own blessings.  At the end of a medical mission, I always feel grateful to be back to the environment where I have comfort, control, to a certain degree, of my fate, and freedom to express myself.

I also learn how simplicity doesn’t necessarily correlate with unhappiness or the ordinary.  People with limited means treasure the little things they own and make the most out of them.  They learn to be creative and inventive.  They learn the essential lesson of being content and grateful.  They learn to live as a community and share their limited resources.  They learn when they don’t have enough, they don’t necessarily have to yearn for more, as compared with those who have more and always feel inadequate. 

The Costa Rican hospital where I operated from was a lot more advanced than those in Myanmar where I participated on a mission last year. Still, the resources were scarce and healthcare providers there learn to practice medicine using the limited instruments they have.  Scrub brushes for hand washing before the surgical cases are recycled.  Laparoscopy wasn’t available, so I had to go back to the traditional technique of “mini-laparotomy,” where a longer incision is necessary with more postoperative pain and a longer recovery time.  The last time I used this technique was more than 25 years ago.

Unlike what my father feared, my trouble with this medical mission didn’t happen in Costa Rica.  It happened when I landed, back at the Miami airport, where the discovery of a suspicious package delayed my plane for almost four hours, resulting in me coming home at 3 am instead of 11pm.

Today, Paris again was under terrorist attack.  Hundreds of innocent people in normal life were killed, while conducting normal activities such as dining in a restaurant or going to a soccer game, going to a concert or just walking the streets.  It was Friday and they were celebrating the end of a working week.  Instead, as one witness said “Gunmen were shooting us like we were birds.” 

The terrorists are not wise enough to understand Melanie Safka’s “Beautiful People.”  In their world full of hate and anger, they do not recognize how, in the subway and on the plane, in the concert hall and soccer stadium or restaurant, our lives cross.  It’s their loss.  Us and them.  We all could have been those beautiful people, wearing the same buttons, traveling in the same direction, having the same dream for our children, of a life in peace, freedom and prosperity.  They don’t realize, as I have during my medical mission trips, that we should extend our hands and care for someone who does not look like us, speak like us, worship like us.  In return, he might someday extend his hands and care for us. 

Do not fear those who do not look like us, worship the same God, or live in the same lifestyle of Western civilization.  As medical missionaries, like Peace Corp volunteers, we try to participate in a small part of peacemaking besides rendering the healthcare that’s so needed.  The gap of wealth and poverty in the world is so wide, causing anger and frustration among those who are at the extreme end of poverty.  By caring for those at this extreme end, whenever we have the chance, we, as individuals, will not be able to close this gap. We are, however, building bridges of friendship all over the impoverished areas of the world.  In friendship will we find the common bond of humanity, and set aside the exterior that has often divided us.  As for those who continue to wage war against us, let’s just hope our deeper sense of humanity will suppress our fear of them, of their preference for violence over love and peace, so that we can continue our mission of building these bridges.


Tags: Costa Rica mission, medical mission, Paris Attack

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