They Call It Health Care for a Reason

December 09, 2019

A health worker’s intuition can change a life—and the world.

It was a pretty typical day at Bugando Hospital in Tanzania as I settled in to observe their clubfoot clinic’s routine. Most clinic days, to be honest, get a bit monotonous. Today didn’t seem any different.

Mothers and babies file in.

A toddler in a brace entertains himself with a small tangerine.

A tired mother finds a corner of a bench to sneak in a nap.

Physiotherapists and coordinators move through the long list of appointments.

Parents file in and out, most expressionless or—as I read it—bored. Until…

A mother walks in and her face is unlike any parent’s here. There is no boredom, no rest. She appears nervous, sad, unsure, tucking her tiny baby deep into the fabric wrapped around them both.

Through Joyce’s effort and attention, I saw hope bloom where it previously did not exist.

Amid the scurry, crying babies, and napping parents, no one seems to notice her. For an hour, her eyes dart around the clinic. She carefully watches as a mother and grandmother soak a small boy’s casts off in a small tub and slowly remove the plaster, inch by inch. She watches a dad struggle to get a brace on his daughter. She sees an older child with a complex case try to navigate the crowded room in his bare feet.

Finally, her name is called and she walks over to the assessment desk. She sits down next to Joyce, a physiotherapist.

As Joyce talks with the mother, her questions uncover their story: her baby boy is only a few weeks old and she was distraught to discover his twisted feet at birth. An observant hospital worker identified his birth defect and told her to come to the clubfoot clinic. Tears welled in her eyes as she recounted the events that led to this moment.

Joyce got to work.

Her voice became low, kind, steady. For the next several minutes she treated this mother like the only person in the room. You didn’t need to understand the language they spoke; their faces said it all. I watched as the mother hung on every word and slowly, slowly, softened.

After about 10 minutes, the mother got up, left the room, and returned with her husband in tow. It turns out, he felt so hopeless about the situation that he initially refused to attend the appointment, choosing instead to sit outside.

Joyce started over again from the top, explaining the treatment process, tickling the baby’s feet, putting her hand on the mother’s arm, leaning in, looking them in the eye and explaining everything.

It might not seem like a lot to most—what turned out to be a 45-minute conversation in the middle of a busy day. But to me, it was a gift to witness.

Through Joyce’s effort and attention, I saw hope slowly bloom where it previously did not exist.

By the end of the interaction, mom and dad were visibly relieved. They left with their precious baby in casts, their dignity intact, and a plan they understood for treating their son.

Health care happens in these moments.

Most days, I sit in an office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, pretty far removed from the frontlines. I know our model works. I see the growth in numbers, the improvements in quality. I see the strides made in awareness and advocacy and the way technology is making clinic operations more efficient. All of it is wonderful.

But what I tend to forget—and I’m so grateful to be reminded of—is that real change happens in these moments of empathy, the reassuring touches, and the kindness of a listening ear. When busy clinicians pause their routine and lean into patients’ needs.

The future of so many hinges on the empathy of health workers, and their ability to sense patients’ fears and questions. Not just the 200,000 new families every year dealing with the anxiety of their baby’s clubfoot—but millions of others managing chronic conditions and long-term treatments. From treating HIV to child malnutrition, global health progress on any front happens because of people—supportive and intuitive providers, like Joyce.

Human connection for the win.