Submitted by Dorothea Lagrange
Throughout Europe there are many beggars from poorer countries. They are seldom welcome. What often gets lost in the rhetoric around these individuals is that these are real people, people who are often vulnerable and in need. In Sweden, where I live, I often encounter these beggars. I wish to tell you the story of one of these individuals and how they affected me.
I live in a small village and one day when leaving the market, I noticed an old man sitting on the ground. I had noticed him before, but today he looked especially haggard and was coughing persistently.
I did not know what to do. My heart ached for this man’s suffering, however, there were many stories about these people, mainly from Romania, that they operated some kind of Mafia where they could not keep any money they collected. This internal conflict made me hesitate, yet, I could not ignore the man in front of me, sitting in the cold, dark, wet, winter night. I thought to myself no one would do this voluntarily; his situation must be truly sad to place him here.
I resolved to go back into the market and buy him some food. After a few times of bringing him food, something amazing happened. He began to give me food! I was embarrassed, here was a man with practically nothing giving me what little he had. With no language in common it was hard for us to communicate, but with pantomime and pictures we began to have our own “conversations” and overtime I learned some Romanian. Sometimes we really had fun and laughed together. The other visitors to the shop stared at us sometimes, probably wondering what we were up to.
I found out that I had done what many of my compatriots had done and this man had more food than he could eat! I learned that while food was helpful, what this man really needed was warm clothes and fuel for his car. The car, it turned out, was not for driving as he did not drive, but for shelter and warmth. Additionally, he confided in me that he longed for a proper haircut; something many of us take for granted. After these conversations I had a realization. When I saw him there on the ground I made assumptions about his situation and jumped to a solution based upon my assumptions. I had solved a problem that he did not really have.
It was a reminder that I need to listen and not create solutions before I have figured out the problem. Sometime later he was admitted to the hospital, his years of smoking and tuberculosis had gotten the better of him. Despite his socioeconomic status, he was well cared for and a translator was brought in to help him communicate with the medical team. Additionally, to help him communicate, the nurses made large cards with the Swedish word on one side and Romanian word on the other. One that I was especially fond of, was one that said “coffee”. Someone added on the Swedish side in small letters “with milk and sugar”. The nurses saw him as the individual he was and restored his dignity.
Costel was a man who loved Baroque music and had previously worked in construction. Costel has since passed away, and the last word in Romanian I learned from him was macara, a crane. That however, was not that last thing Costel would teach me. In reflecting on and sharing my experience it is a reminder to always listen. Even if we think it is obvious what someone needs we cannot be sure unless we listen. Also, he taught me that even the poorest of our fellow humans are individuals and stereotypes may often mislead us. Stereotypes may have some grain of truth in them, but they are only part of the picture. It is easy to miss the rest if you don’t open up and allow for listening first.
This insight is very valuable in my daily life as a family doctor. Here, too, listening must come first. This is easily said, but so often in the rush of the day overlooked. Far too often we think we know what the patient wants or needs – and it turns out it is something completely different the patient is looking for. Without knowing what the patient wants, any suggestions about investigations or treatments are not meaningful and patriarchal.
Listening also helps to put stereotypes aside and to see the individual in the encounter. We do have to learn and understand medicine on a solid scientific ground and I am very fond of evidence. We do have to understand the world with data. But we must then go one step further and treat our patients with these data in mind not as a patient like this, but this patient. Who, in this case, loves his coffee with milk and sugar.