The Centimeters Between Our Hands

uvmmedicine blogger Imelda Muller '17
uvmmedicine blogger Imelda Muller ’17

I called the name written on the torn pink form in my hand, broken syllables falling slowly from my lips. I scanned the crowd, searching for upturned eyes among a sea of blank faces. When my gaze met hers from across the room, I again attempted to pronounce the name in front of me. This time she rose in confirmation.

I watched as she smoothly navigated the rows of crowded benches, mechanically stepping over the legs of patients slouched against the walls. With a smile, I welcomed her into the small room. On the door was taped a white piece of paper with the word “skin” scrawled across it. It covered a sign that once read “pediatrics.” I motioned toward a wooden stool next to the doctor’s empty chair-an old school desk.

“He just stepped out for a moment,” I explained cheerfully, taking my seat on a stool across from her. She looked through the table in front of us. “The doctor will be right back,” I continued, unsure of whether I had spoken clearly enough. She remained motionless, a statue of defeat.

As we sat in silence, I scanned her skin for a dermatologic impetus for her presence. Dark, gritty papules littered her arms and face, exposed beneath a beautiful yellow and white gown. A breeze swept through the empty room, teasing us with a welcome reprieve from the heat. The sun’s glow illuminated the sharp contours of her silhouette, creating rays that emanated from the lesions cascading across her cheeks. Her features were otherwise indistinguishable against the aggressive light that shined behind her.

Left to right: Susan Byekwaso, Johanna Kelley, Katherine Wang, and Imelda Muller
Left to right: Susan Byekwaso, Johanna Kelley, Katherine Wang, and Imelda Muller

As we sat, small pieces of her face appeared to swell and run downward, glistening in the light on their journey into her lap where they disappeared. Alarmed, I soon realized that these were tears. As she wept, her sobs erupted in quivering waves that rushed down her shoulders, eroding her stillness.

“I am so sorry,” I said in a language she did not understand. I began to reach toward her, but quickly withdrew my hand, unsure of whether this was an acceptable way to console her. The smile I had displayed as I welcomed her suddenly seemed inappropriate-a cruel juxtaposition to her anguish. She spoke through her tears with a raspy wailing tone as she gestured to her face and body.

After only about twenty hours in Uganda, I struggled to find the words to bring her solace. Instead, my brow furrowed and the corners of my lips fell downward as the magnitude of her torment reached me. I tried some other small phrases and shook my head, the only expressions I knew to convey my acknowledgement of her suffering. She did not look up. My words fell through the air and my contorted face was lost in the space between us.

Compelled to reach out to her again, my hand stopped next to hers this time. It rested on the table where it remained until the doctor returned. The centimeters between our hands felt like miles that mocked the ocean which had so recently separated us.

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