Healing in Albania | Medicine in America

His name was Ilir, which translates into “one who is free” in Albanian. In our small mountainous village, everyone called him “doktor”. There wasn’t a person in our community who had not called upon him for medical assistance. Whether he was mending broken bones, helping the midwives deliver babies, or reassuring my grandmother that she was not in fact having a heart attack, only heartburn, Ilir was our village savior, helping those he could. Praying for those he couldn’t.

People said he studied medicine in the capital but ultimately decided to practice in our village. The villagers respected him. He wouldn’t amass a fortune in such rural settings, where people would usually pay for medical assistance with bags of vegetables and fruit. Sometimes he wouldn’t accept any form of payment at all. It was simple. They had no means to pay.

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With its towering skyscrapers, fancy cars on every block, and supermarkets stacked with candy I had never seen before, America was the greatest place on Earth to me. For my parents, America was a difficult professor, trying to fail their immigration experiment at every turn. But they wouldn’t give up, and despite countless setbacks, they firmly established a foothold in New York City, our new village.

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In Albania, people only went to the hospital as a last resort – when the onion and garlic-vinegar ointments no longer worked or when the homemade splint worsened the pain of a broken arm. At the age of seven, I fell off our two-story balcony, landing on my back.  My grandmother conducted her own physical exam, and had concluded that nothing was broken. No X-rays needed.  Now drink some olive oil to “revive your spirit,” she’d say. I never questioned my grandmother. She possessed the kind of medical knowledge that comes from raising eight children and thirteen grandchildren through a difficult famine, civil war, and poverty.

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When I entered St. Luke’s Hospital for the first time as a volunteer researcher in the anesthesiology department, I was shocked. The entire atmosphere was so calm, benign. Silently overwhelming. I saw no horses or donkeys tethered in front of the hospital entrance. I heard no yelling from disgruntled patients waiting to see a physician. And I certainly did not see trash bins overflowing with garbage. This hospital in New York was the antithesis of our local “hospitals” back home, or New York as it exists beyond these sterile walls.  But I was excited. I’d be part of this organized oracle of Medicare and clinical trials. Modern healing, as it were.  

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It was hot. I was tired and cranky from walking all over the market with my mother and aunt. Sensing I was about to cry, my mother decided to buy me an ice cream at the nearby stand. While patiently awaiting my reward for the day, my eyes started to wander across the boulevard where two men were arguing. This was not unusual, especially in Albania. People there are naturally loud. However, things changed. One of the boisterous party took out a pistol and aimed it at his adversary. Before a body slumped on the concrete pavement, a soft pop pop pop sound echoed throughout the area. At this point, every living soul ran in every direction. My mother scooped me up in her arms and never looked back. With my head nestled on her shoulder, I had a clear picture of everyone scattering like little ants, with a lone body lying motionless on the floor. Not all though.  A young man ran to the motionless person on the street. He took off his shirt and was trying to stop the bleeding that had spread across the victim’s chest. That was the last thing I saw before my mother covered my eyes and took me home.

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Taking the elevator up to Dr. Henry Bennett’s office, the head of anesthesiology clinical research, I had a basic idea of what my responsibilities would entail:  administer surveys and questionnaires to participants whom I was supposed to recruit for the department’s ongoing projects. As part of the study, our team had to measure patient anxiety before a procedure and the effects of that anxiety on post-procedural recovery time. I was indeed ready for such a task. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was when Dr. Bennett asked if I would like to “scrub up.” Me? Observe a surgical procedure?  A research volunteer allowed to enter one of the most sacred rooms in the entire hospital? “Of course!” I yelled, my voice exhibiting the sheer excitement surging through my body. Before he sent me into OR # 3, Dr. Bennett’s advice was twofold: “Firstly, do not touch anything on a sterile surface.” This sounded reasonable.  Check. “Secondly, if you feel yourself getting dizzy, immediately drop to the floor on one knee so you don’t bash your head when you faint.” …Check?

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I stubbornly followed Ilir, going door to door wherever he was called, watching him work. Amazingly he let me tag along, perhaps reasoning that time spent watching him work was better spent than getting into trouble, which I was famous for. As his unofficial assistant, I had a front row seat on the majority of his procedures. Called upon by the family of a local farmer, whose son had cut his feet on a nearby canal, Ilir methodically cleaned the wounds, stitched them up, and then wrapped both feet with dressing. On another occasion, I watched our doctor remove a metal hook from the hand of the town butcher, who also had to get a tetanus shot on top of everything else.

His movements when working were so fluid and methodical, he made every procedure look simple. He reassured entire families by simply walking through the door, smiling, and confidently going to work. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted people to feel safe and comforted whenever I entered a house to heal. Above all, I wanted to know everything about healing that he did. But I was also a kid at the time, whose curiosity about healing was soon overcome by an overwhelming excitement about America, my home to be.

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As I entered OR # 3 wearing my blue scrubs and I.D. badge, I found myself a perfect little corner where I could witness everything, while simultaneously staying out of the surgical team’s way. On the operating table lay an elderly man draped with layers of sterile blue sheets; the top of the skull being the only area exposed to the surgeon’s knife. According to the walnut-sized sphere on the numerous x-rays scattered before the surgical team, the patient had a brain tumor. The chief surgeon soon began by cutting into the scalp, removing the skin and connective tissue and exposing the skull underneath. For the next seven and a half hours, I was rooted in my little corner watching these confident medical professionals perform the delicate dance of healing.

I was simply mesmerized.  Healing is an art.  Messy, brutish, and barbaric.  Still, delicate, sophisticated and beautiful.

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No matter how hard I study, I don’t put my trust into a textbook. I don’t trust ancient village wisdom or homeopathy or drinking chicken soup to avoid a cold. My grandmother was a beautiful, smart woman but she wouldn’t be my first option to stand over me on an operating table. But the heartbeat she lived by must be the same as any doctor I’d allow. I’ve seen healing mend the cruel scars or war or the product of finest education modern humanity can provide. Wherever our “doktors” work, the foundations of healing stay the same.  Despite the tools, a heart committed to healing does what it cans to do what it must. With tenacity. Bravery. Love.

Enea Himi

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2 thoughts on “Healing in Albania | Medicine in America”

  1. I do consider all the concepts you’ve introduced on your post.

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