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Queens Chronicle

‘Medicine in Translation’ timely and poignant

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Posted: Thursday, February 4, 2010 12:00 am

For months, you’ve been keeping a tight eye on Washington. The healthcare debate has your attention, and you’ve got definite opinions.

You’ve also got questions. How would reform affect you and your family? Would insurance be cheaper or more costly, better or worse? And how would it affect your wallet when your taxes are used to insure the uninsured?

Before you dwell on that last concern, read “Medicine in Translation” by Danielle Ofri. On this thorny issue, you may have already made up your mind. After reading her book, you may change it.

Every Monday after lunchtime, Dr. Ofri has an appointment with someone whose injuries are unimaginable. Registered with the Survivors of Torture program, these patients have seen devastating horrors, and their scars run far deeper than the physical.

There was Samuel, the victim of an acid attack. Mohammad, who felt imprisoned in the Land of the Free. A man threatened with death because he’s gay. Another who witnessed the disemboweling of an Iraqi imam from Flushing whose brothers had been buried alive by Saddam Hussein. Victims of political or cultural wars, displaced from homeland and family. Ofri says her colleagues care for these patients, too, but each doctor sees just one or two a week; any more would be too hard.

As a physician at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital, Ofri cares for more than just Survivors of Torture patients. Julia Barquero, a woman with devastating health issues, arrived in New York by walking through Guatemala. Elderly Dr. Chan left his frail, Alzheimer’s-stricken wife in America when he returned to China, figuring she’d forget him soon anyhow. Juan Moreno, like many foreign-born patients, declined to participate in medical decision-making, preferring that someone in a position of authority make the call.

Most of Ofri’s patients speak English, more or less, but some require translators. More frustrating is the unknown: does someone legitimately need medication or is he dealing it?

Stressed and not wanting her children to grow up with a single-language handicap, Ofri seized the opportunity of a one-year sabbatical in Costa Rica. But when she learned she was pregnant, she also learned that language barriers can be overcome and that health care is not the same around the world.

Timely, beautiful and heartbreaking, “Medicine in Translation” couldn’t have been published at a better time.

The author is the child of immigrants, and writes with sensitivity, poignancy and a shot of humor. Her ability to tease stories gently from people who would really rather forget is remarkable, and her style, which weaves her own journey in with the journeys of her patients, is delightful. I shuddered while reading this book, I smiled and I can’t wait for her next one.

‘Medicine in Translation’

by Danielle Ofri

Beacon Press

256 pages

List price: $24.95

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