On the third day of my internship, the organization sent me to a “colloque” (seminar) on the subject of Hepatitis B and C at the Ministère des Affaires Sociales et de la Santé. The French Republic held this seminar on the french national day dedicated to the fight against hepatitis.
I received a name tag at the door with the title “Paloma Palmer, stagiaire au Comede” and felt immediately as if I had shrunken and become lost upon entering the room full of french professionals, all of whom were speaking faster than my brain could process. This problem of keeping up in fast past and familiar conversation persisted for not only the duration of the eight-hour seminar, but for the next 8 weeks. The seminar was in honor of the country’s national day dedicated to fighting hepatitis and was spoken entirely in french.
I was still adjusting to hearing french from native french speakers, so it was difficult to keep up with every topic they discussed, let alone understanding the scientific terms- which in all disclosure would have been lost on me even if it was in english! I did learn a lot more about the different types of hepatitis, their causes, and dangers, and became more accustomed to the medical terms that were used in the hospital – all while advancing my fluency! After my first few days in Paris I realized that eight years of french studies in America isn’t necessarily going to prepare me for discussions among french professionals.
Everyday at COMEDE came with a new challenge, along with a constant effort to communicate in French. Sometimes I would get frustrated when I was overwhelmed with patients, especially when I was the only one at the desk. I would often find myself getting mad and blaming my struggle on the patients who were being impatient or who asked questions that I didn’t have the answer to. A lot of my anger came from my insecurity that I was incapable or not good enough to even solve a simple problem alone, but I was able to get some perspective on the situation when I thought of both the journey of the patients and my own journey and how they led us to this small health center, in the outskirts of Paris.
Just as I had to research the organization, contact them, and eventually find the little wooden door that had the sign “COMEDE” on it, in a small alley within the hospital, everyday patients have to do this same trip. I had to wander for 1 hour to find the wooden door, for others it took 3 months. But while this job is my main focus, this trip to the hospital is just one stop out of many in their day in an effort to survive. Being in exile is a full-time job.
Especially in Paris, where it seems someone is always striking about something, it can be challenging to be organized and prompt to appointments, meetings, or deadlines when you must depend on things you don’t have control over like the muni or post office. Because COMEDE is very busy every day, if a patient misses her appointment, she may have to wait an entire month for the next time available; some people don’t have that kind of time. Patients may need immediate help such as a doctor’s note to escape deportation, a life-threatening illness that must be treated, or psychological help to avoid depression or suicide, the list goes on, but because they were late to their appointment, everything is delayed. To manage mental and physical health, while also trying to find housing, a job, and food, not to mention with a language barrier? I think they have a right to grow impatient at times and I think I owe it to them to offer compassion and as much help as I can.