A Foreign Concept
Posted by Harrison ReedComment

4Musings-Blog-HeaderThis article appears on the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants’ blog, Musings.

I returned from a trip to another hemisphere, but it could have been another planet. It was the type of place where you could hear a half-dozen languages spoken at a single restaurant and, from the color of someone’s skin, you couldn’t guess which continent they were from, much less the neighborhood. And although my foreign language skills need work, I was much more embarrassed by how foreign a different concept felt: social responsibility.

You’ll see it in other countries. It’s the kind of thing that makes a baker set extra bread on the outside stoop at night or the reason stray dogs still somehow stay plump and alive. It’s not charity. It doesn’t come from pity. It comes from understanding what separates the prosperous from the impoverished. From knowing the only difference between a pet and a stray is a piece of fabric around the neck.

“Every success, and every mistake, only happens as the result of 500 successes or mistakes before it,” the Chilean bartender says as he slides me an India Pale Ale—the beer itself is the happy result of a shipping mistake hundreds of years ago. “There are infinite opportunities along the way to prevent something. And many people have the power to do so. Even if they choose not to.”

The bartender has never heard of Atul Gawande or read “Complications” or seen the inside of a modern OR. At least not that he remembers.

But a sniper’s bullet tore through his chest in Kosovo, so I imagine he understands the concept of mistakes and millimeters.

Right here, he points to a scar just south of his clavicle. I remember enough from anatomy class to know he is lucky to have the use of that arm, much less his life.

I asked him why a man would leave the tranquility of his native harbor town to learn English and fight for peace in a bomb-riddled country he had never heard of. He shrugged.

“Because no one else would do it.”

I wondered in that moment how many in modern medicine would take a metaphorical bullet because it was the right thing to do, because no one else would.


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