Global Doc: Small Joys to the World

Author: Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02

These are difficult times. With so much negativity in the news, it’s easy to fall into despair. Our daily lives can be peppered with hardships. The line of work I have chosen is never easy, and small inconveniences can needle their way deep into your being.

The bank in Haiti won’t accept a check because they can’t read my signature — as if a signature needs to be legible. I forget to pay the internet bill on time, which has to be done at a store 30 minutes away, leaving the whole office unable to work. The young consulate agent at the U.S. embassy denies our partner’s visa application, jeopardizing his ability to go to Miami for training and our ability to open the first pathology lab outside Port-au-Prince.

In such moments, breathing techniques don’t always bring calm. The physical discomfort of the environment, hot or dusty, or sometimes going without drinking water for the day, agitates enough to hypersensitize the fight-or-flight response. Negative thoughts swirl, feeding off of each other and growing larger and more intense. But sometimes my mind clears for a second and a smile washes over my face.

Those are the times I allow myself to perceive the wonderful minutiae of life, instead of clogging it with fear and frustration. The serenity of the simple blue sky is always present, even when rainclouds obscure the view. I step out on to the street and feel the life coursing by. The sounds of commerce, little girls with yellow bows in their hair, even the cacophony of cars and motorcycles may all remind me of the joys of the world.

Here are a few of them:

My job in Haiti puts me in contact with amazing people and projects. I work at a hospital that provides cancer care and intensive care at American standards. Haiti Air Ambulance transports and cares for the poorest regardless of their ability to pay. Starkey Hearing Foundation distributes 100,000 hearing aids a around the globe each year. Papillon is a socially-responsible business that employs hundreds of women, allowing them to care for their own children instead of placing them in orphanages.

When I ride on an emergency medical helicopter I get to see the entire beautiful country from the air. Each knot of turbulent air is a not-so-gentle reminder that we’re 4,000 feet above the ground, and it sends vibrations of life through me. It may be the third time that week I’ve been airborne, but chances are high that the patient that we’re transporting has never before been off of the ground.

At the Women’s Health Center, I’m fortunate to experience the full range of human emotions, sometimes in a single day. Patients are cured of cancer and thank our staff with pure joy. Others are informed of the futility of continuing treatment and we all cry together. As a doctor, I’ve been privileged to be present at countless births and deaths, each one unique and real. More often than not, we simply try to laugh and listen to patients’ stories, trying in that small way to make lives better than they were before.

Family and friends give me hundreds or thousands of dollars for this work, demonstrating trust and compassion and love. People who were complete strangers two years ago donate tens of thousands of dollars, a truly humbling proposition. This year I’ve been to Tokyo, Lisbon, London, Paris, Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Denver, Miami and, of course, Port-au-Prince. A simple conversation with a voodoo priest or the cashier at Panera may turn into an experience that changes the tenor of the day for the better.

At home for the holidays, the uniqueness of my family, for better or worse, is on display. Instead of writing letters or talking on the phone, we can be face to face via Skype with family in Texas, Italy and Guam. The 93-year-old grandmother and the five-month-old baby are equally enthralled with each other’s faces on the computer screen. The menu at holiday dinners hasn’t changed in three decades: pasta as primo piatto followed by turkey and all the trimmings of a typical American Thanksgiving. Now I’m looking forward to Christmas Eve and the seven fish dishes on the traditional Italian table.

Of all the changes this year, the permanent presence of a wonderful partner to share my life with is the one I’m most grateful for. Instead of flying across three countries and five time zones to touch her, now I simply grab her hand, as she’s constantly by my side. Yes, love is wonderful, but it’s more than that. It’s sharing life, whether good or bad, each of us lightening the load for the other. Instead of wolfing down a tuna sandwich or bowl of cereal by myself, we shop for food and cook a chicken soup together. The simple act of eating becomes a communion between two souls.

I can’t be anything but grateful for where I am and what I’ve been given. Not everyone has been as blessed for sure, but we all have something to be thankful for. Let us forget the fear and negativity foisted upon us and instead cherish these little things, because — like those sights and sounds on the street outside my office — their ephemerality is what makes them special.

Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and global public health specialist in the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blog.