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Spring 2014
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Outside the Walls
An intern volunteers for the Sandy relief effort.

After Hurricane Sandy hit, I packed my duffel bag with medical supplies and scrubs, and—with the blessing of my program director—hopped on a bus headed for New York City. I grew up in Connecticut; with my medical training, I felt I could offer something tangible to my neighbors.

When I arrived in New York, I linked up with Occupy Sandy at St. Jacobi Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Within the hour, I was paired with two volunteers to make house calls to apartments that had been listed as “requiring medical care.” We were briefed and dispatched almost immediately. Sitting in the back of a car with people I had just met, watching the devastation out of the window flash by, it all seemed surreal.

I was nervous. It was my first time wearing my white coat outside of a medical setting; I had graduated from medical school only six months prior. I didn’t know what to expect, or how much good I could actually do. And I confronted more immediate fears too: I was in an unfamiliar area, with multiple reports of looting and crime; the streets were dark, the lights out.

In the first apartment building, we faced pitch blackness and the shocking stench of garbage, urine, and feces. The apartments had lacked running water and sanitation for more than a week. People were throwing trash into the hallways and relieving themselves in the staircases.

We turned on our headlamps, fought through the debris to our target apartment, and knocked. No answer. “Hello, my name is Doctor Gupta, and I am here to help,” I said—words that I had never spoken outside the hospital. After a moment, the door opened a crack, and an elderly lady peered around its bolted chain. Eyeing me, she opened the door farther, let us in. We assessed her medical needs, made notes, told her news from “the outside,” gave her food and water.

For the next few days, I made similar house calls in Coney Island and the Rockaways. I came across myriad medical problems and for the first time made decisions without a senior resident or attending to verify my assessments. I saw children with asthma exacerbations and no access to inhalers; elderly patients who had run out of their blood pressure medications and were experiencing dangerously high blood pressures; disabled people who, without running elevators, were restricted to their apartments; individuals with severely infected wounds; and people experiencing suicidal ideations. All were grateful, trusting.

Their confidence buoyed my own. After my first few patients, I became more sure of my evaluations and recommendations, less insecure about my relative inexperience, and more keenly aware that medicine is just about a doctor and a patient, a person with a need and a person who will try to help, in or outside the hospital’s walls.

Piyush Gupta is an intern in Brown’s Categorical Internal Medicine Residency Program.

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