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The Language of Care | Alumni Bookshelf
The Language of Care
Photo by: Claire Duggan
When most people take a vacation, they try to avoid thinking about work, much less spending valuable leave time bettering themselves for their job. But the latter was the case for Neerav Shukla, BS ’96, MD ’00, who traveled to Costa Rica in January to learn Spanish so he would be able to better communicate with his Spanish-speaking patients.
During his trip, Shukla was a third-year pediatric resident at St. Christopher’s Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. “A large portion of my patients are Puerto Rican, and their community is so tight-knit that they don’t always learn how to speak English,” Shukla says. “The hardest times are in the ER when time is critical. And if you don’t have a Spanish-speaking staff member, or those who can speak Spanish are busy, you feel like you are giving them worse care.”
Getting a patient’s history is one of the most critical aspects of treatment. Shukla says overcoming a language barrier is the difference between being able to precisely understand a pain, its location, and duration as opposed to the patient just saying, “It hurts.”
Shukla decided he wanted to improve his limited Spanish skills, so he researched Spanish schools and signed up for a four-week language immersion program at La Escuela De Idiomas D’Amore in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
“It was the perfect location,” Shukla says. “A friend and I were able to take classes for several hours each day, and then we could put our skills to use by aiding in taking histories of patients at a small hospital, Hospital Max Teran, in the town of Quespos.”
And though the views from the school, which sat on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, may have been distracting, it was a good reminder of the things Shukla could do on his time off during his working vacation. “We took full advantage of being in Costa Rica,” Shukla says. “When we weren’t in class or at the hospital, we enjoyed fishing in the Pacific Ocean, the nightlife of Quespos, and the perks of Manuel Antonio National Park, specifically hiking through rainforests and seeing the amazing wildlife.”
Shukla says an additional bonus of spending time in a different country was being able to see how another country’s health care system works. He says he was surprised and happy that Costa Rica benefited from a hospital system that was more advanced that he had envisioned. “When we arrived in Costa Rica, we were able to visit the National Children’s Hospital of Costa Rica, and it was run just like a major U.S. hospital.”
Time spent practicing Spanish in a medical environment allowed Shukla to see some conditions rarely seen in the United States. “I will now be better able to diagnose Dengue Fever or Leptospirosis, if they ever cross my path,” Shukla laughs.
As a fellow for pediatric hematology and oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, it’s unlikely that Shukla will see many such rare, tropical infectious diseases, but his improved Spanish skills are sure to be useful in his new position. “Any hospital in an urban U.S. setting is going to have Spanish-speaking patients,” he says.
“GW equipped me well for this work,” Shukla says. “Among other things, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ curriculum and professors gave me an understanding of basic medicine that one doesn’t necessarily see the fundamentals of ingrained in every doctor. My rotation through D.C. Children’s Hospital was an amazing education that really prepared me for working in other large pediatric hospitals.”
Shukla is keeping an open mind about his future in pediatric oncology, but right now he is interested in bone marrow transplants and hopes to learn as much as he can in this field and from the children with whom he works.
“The kids there are absolutely amazing,” Shukla said of his patients. “They’re so strong and they give me the gift of perspective.”
No matter what languages his patients speak, they will benefit from the skills, heart, and knowledge of a dedicated doctor whose mission in life is to treat children who have cancer and work to eradicate the disease.
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