Dr. Laura Fry: The new Americans

I am not by nature or upbringing a flag-waving patriot. My parents reared us in an international environment, with a strong sense of global community. Daddy was a World War II veteran however, and had the proper pride in his role as a very young medic in the European Theater. The result was that he was both permanently traumatized and fell in love with Europe. His ashes are spread in Provence. Click here for the Concord Monitor site

However, this is not a story about him. It is a story about a Friday in late April that made me feel very, very proud of my country.

I was privileged to witness at least part of the naturalization ceremony for new citizens at the federal courthouse in Concord. One of my patients had let me know that he would be part of that ceremony, and I was fortunate enough to have the day off. I had helped him with his paperwork.

To become naturalized is a multi-step process and is an option to refugees, among others, who have had their green card for five years.

Part of the process is that one has to pass an examination in English and civics. If there is a medical reason that someone cannot take or pass the examination, the candidate may go to his or her physician and ask for paperwork to be filled out for an exemption.

I have been asked to do this many times and have been happy to help out. When Hussein asked me for help with this, I asked him to come in with his interpreter and I would see what I could do.

This Somalian refugee, whose wife and children are very dear to me (they named their newest baby Laura), is someone I care for with all the difficulties of language and culture.

He has severe heart disease but takes needed medications only sporadically. It has taken me years to grasp that what we glibly call “non-compliance” is not a simple thing for this man. He feels well most of the time, and doesn’t understand why he has to take all these pills, or have a machine put into his body (he’s a candidate for an implantable defibrillator) when he can go to work every day.

When I interviewed him for his citizenship, I got a deeper understanding of why he ticked as he did.

“Fry,” he told me, “I can’t learn English. I can’t take the test.”

“Why Hussein?”

“My brain got destroyed in my country.”

I gently asked him what that meant and what happened to him. The tears started flowing as he told me of the events that led to him becoming a refugee.

“I watched my sister being chopped in half. They held me and beat me and made me watch. They did this to punish me.”

As he talked, he wept and made a hacking motion with his hands to show me what they did to his sister.

“Every night, every day I see this in front of me.”

Soon, I was crying too, and the interpreter was not unmoved. We sat in silence for a while and then he told me more.

“I never went to school, not one day. I never learned how to read or write, but I understand machines.”

Hussein works hard to support his family, and he’s a wonderful mechanic from what I hear. This has helped me to explain his heart condition to him, using pumps, pressure valves and pipes as analogies.

“Fry,” he went on, “I love America. My children are free, and I want to be an American like they are. Please help me.”

Of course I would and could, citing illiteracy and PTSD. I asked him to let me know if it all worked out and that’s how I was in the courtroom that Friday.

Before I saw Hussein in the hall, going through security, I ran into many familiar faces.

An Iraqi woman who has permanent memory loss from trauma was there with her husband. I had helped with her paperwork as well.

I ran into a Dominican family I knew, and a Haitian gentleman whose niece he helped when she had her triplets here in the U.S.

It felt like old home week there! The atmosphere was solemn but electric with joy and expectation. I could feel the wonder of it, not only in the candidates but also in the staff who were participating. Everyone seemed kind, helpful, gentle. American spouses held children carrying little American flags, as mom or dad took the oath. Children helped their elderly parents with the process and with interpretation.

Many folks were dressed in their finest, and were given bouquets of flowers by friends and loved ones. Hussein got there early and was sitting expectantly with his interpreter when I got there. His grin when he spotted me warmed me to the core. I was so glad I was there as a witness.

Being a physician for the disenfranchised of the world takes me down paths I would never have expected. Asking the right questions and helping out with citizenship paperwork might not compare to curing Alzheimer’s or performing a heart transplant, but I’m pretty certain it contributes to health and healing. And I know there is one man whose heart might be a little less stressed because he’s an American now.

Next time I see him, I’ll talk to him about voting in November!


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