I’m currently volunteering as a Farsi and Dari interpreter at a medical clinic at both One Happy Family (OHF) refugee community center and the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece. In 2015 I volunteered as general labor and later an interpreter at refugee camps Pikpa and Moria and shared those stories here.
To protect patients’ privacy I’ve removed names, genders, nationalities, and identifiable health conditions.
30 October – 2 November, 2017
I left last night’s shift at 10:00 after I was unable to conjugate Farsi verbs or remember basic English words like laundry detergent and chickenpox — I have epilepsy and am more cautious than I used to be.
This morning I was still tired. Luckily, work was easy. I ran a few errands, heading to the pharmacy and apartment to pick up items for the clinic then into town to pick up a volunteer. Between errands I translated, though there were few patients and the cases were easy. It was a perfect day to deal with exhaustion.
After work my flatmates threw a birthday party for me. I hate celebrations for myself, but I love pizza so things worked out. I stuffed my face with pizza and cake. I promised myself I would run afterwards — dealing with stomach problems during a long run after a party or restaurant meal is a great incentive to eat responsibly — but the hot water in the apartment wasn’t working so I had the perfect excuse not to run. After the party I avoided the mirror for the next few days.
I finally turned the rental car in today. We didn’t need a new car, but a new nurse arrived who was willing to drive and I didn’t want my name on the insurance anymore so we decided to get rid of the one we had been driving. I had scratched it once while trying to drive between two cars in a narrow alley (When in Rome…), while another driver on the insurance scratched the front bumper and separated it from the rest of the car by a centimeter in two different accidents, another driver at the OHF clinic backed into us, and on top of all of that we found a new scratch or ding on it about twice a week due to other drivers scratching us while passing or parking. It would have looked better after a demolition derby. We had full insurance, but we rented the car with my credit card so I still viewed today as doomsday.
The driver for the rental company came, talked to us for a few minutes about the good work we do (his wife is a volunteer nurse on the island), and drove off in our old car. He didn’t mention a single thing about the car looking like we drive through a meteor shower. A Christmas miracle!
At the clinic, a doctor who had been here last month returned today. He was an hour late, which wasn’t unusual for him, but he also arrived with 100 pounds of fruit to give to patients, which also isn’t unusual for him. We had had just pediatricians for the last three weeks so our new GP ushered in a flood of adults with lingering conditions.
Our Iranian interpreter took the day off. Naturally, every Farsi and Dari speaker on the island came by the clinic this afternoon. I was busy the entire shift and ran across just two words I had to look up over twenty-ish patients. It was a great day and I finally felt truly needed.
We share a building with a school which starts at 4:00 p.m., meaning we’re supposed to be out by 3:30. We’re usually out by 3:55 and occasionally have conflict with the school when we run late. Today a panicked mother brought in a screaming baby at 3:55. The teachers and students lined up outside the building and saw the doctor calmly treat and bandage a screaming, bleeding baby for 15 minutes. They haven’t bothered us about running late since, nor will they in the future.
I started today by running up to the ancient theater. I’ve done the run before, but today I took a “shortcut” by running straight up a dirt path instead of running an extra two blocks on paved road. It was silent, beautiful, and perfect. I got to the top of the hill and saw that the theater was closed, despite me arriving during the posted open hours. The theater has been closed every day I’ve been there. Because Greece.
Instead of running back down towards the city, I ran a few extra blocks onto a highway on the other side of the mountain, then raced back along a winding highway overlooking the Aegean Sea. Again, it was perfect.
At the clinic, it was the busiest day so far. We had myself, a pediatrician, a GP, two triage nurses, another nurse, and two interpreters (one Iranian and one Iraqi) and were still nearly overwhelmed. Luckily most patients had basic colds and fevers.
I nearly exploded after a patient who is blind in one eye came in and was told that we couldn’t send him to the hospital or a health clinic in town to be treated. It was the first time I yelled at another volunteer, and the first time I yelled in front of patients. Myself and another volunteer approached the patient as soon as he left to get his contact information, then set up an appointment for him to get x-rays done. I’m still furious about it.
The day got better, but barely. I had to explain to several patients that if they chose to take medication for their diarrhea, their other symptoms would get worse. While it’s miserable for the people with diarrhea, it’s much more miserable for the people they’re jammed into a Isobox (yes, the actual name of the boxes they live in) with.
Later, I got chewed out for presumed incorrect treatment of a man who came in with a note from another NGO stating he had stitches done upon arrival on the shore and needed to be seen. The note said little else. When I called the NGO and asked for more details about the background o the injury, why he needed stitches in the first place, and what antibiotics he was on, I got an earful about not prescribing him antibiotics and how dangerous it would be for me to do so, then another lecture about why he needed to get to a hospital immediately. Then it was my turn. I explained how difficult it is to get patients into the hospital in a timely manner, how much more difficult it gets for them when they’re not provided with rides or interpreters, and how difficult it is for them to get free RX meds; patients who arrive to the city hospital with just a note from a clinic doctor have a snowball’s chance in hell of receiving care within a month. It felt good to rant.
After work I went to a restaurant with some friends from IsraAid. It was their last day on the island. I did my best to just enjoy the night and ignore the gut feeling I would never see any of them again. It worked; I was a great night. I don’t drink but still proposed a new drinking game: Every time the new doctor mentions the Ivy League school they went to our how many years of college they had completed, someone has to take a shot.
They couldn’t afford to play because they had to be sober the next morning to catch their flight out.
The plan this morning was to take three patients for hospital appointments. One was prompt and prepared, another wasn’t ready and didn’t answer their phone, and a third came to us without an appointment.
At the clinic, patient one waited a mere two hours (said non-sarcastically) but was then seen and had surgery scheduled — which took us nearly two months to finish but was worth the wait — and I finally got to use the very specific and uncommon medical terms I had studied for his previous consultations which had been canceled or missed. Too easy.
Patient two arrived found another ride to the hospital, then finished their labwork within 30 minutes — another Christmas miracle.
Patient three showed up without an appointment and had a blood draw scheduled for the end of the month.
After the hospital, I took one of the patients to the grocery store for a few items. While I was there I realized I couldn’t read the labels. I could see shapes and recognize colors just fine, but couldn’t distinguish one letter from another. I dropped the patient off, then drove to IKA (the town’s medical clinic) to translate for more patients with suspected broken bones. The vocab was easy but my brain was blocking me from conjugating basic verbs. I gave the car keys to one of our nurses, then walked back to the apartment after I finished translating. I went straight to bed. After I woke up I walked downtown to see some of the protesters and try to set up appointments with psychologists for them — there’s a three-month wait list to see a psychologist here — then took the rest of the night off of journaling, calling patients, or doing anything else which requires a brain.