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A multicultural healing act

A multicultural healing act

The Devil’s Advocate
Carlos Barón

Recently, I had a surgery. As I get older, those interventions have been occurring rather often. The times when I thought that I was immortal are long gone.

If future archaeologists dig up my bones (if I leave any bones behind), they might say: “This male subject must have been an important member of his tribe. Look at the many ways they kept him alive and functional.”  Among family and friends I am also known as “the bionic man.”

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Those archaeologists might eventually realize that the main reason for the various successful interventions to my body is not because I was an important character in my times, but because I had good health insurance!

Health insurance is a basic human right, especially in this so-called “developed nation,” where health and education are (mostly) for-profit businesses at the moment. Everyone should have great health insurance and have access to a great education. For free. That is still a utopic dream!

Today, what I am writing about is not a dream. Instead, I will share a wonderful reality: the amazing care that I received while being attended by a very multicultural and multilingual health team at the Kaiser Hospital in South San Francisco.

A surgery where total anesthesia is involved and many sharp instruments are used on your body, is a veritable act of faith, akin to boarding a plane and placing your life in the hands of a pilot.

Could I trust this veritable United Nations of a health team? Would I have a good flight?


The xenophobic times that we are living through demand stories that accept and celebrate the fact that we are a multicultural country. We are all immigrants. Except of course, the original peoples. That reality makes us stronger.

From the moment I arrived to the hospital, I was made to feel relaxed by a team of capable professionals, many (maybe most) first- or second-generation immigrants. All colors of the rainbow.

Illustration: Gustavo Reyes

To begin with, the smiling woman in admittance, was a Puerto Rican/Mexican. She talked about the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. How fun it is. That I should experience it!

From there, I was ushered to the ambulatory surgery/pre-op unit, where a young Nepalese woman proceeded to get me ready for the surgery, exuding a calm and professional demeanor.

Then, there was Silvia.  She is a Chinese nurse. Before she took over my process, I could hear her, exchanging stories and laughter with her co-workers and with other patients in the room.

I taught storytelling for over 30 years.  I am able to recognize a good story when I see it (or hear it), even when it is simply bubbling under the surface. I asked about her name. She laughed. “I was nine years old when I arrived. They put me in a classroom with other recent immigrants and the teacher told us that now we had to pick an American name. She [the teacher] read from a list of names.”

“I chose Cinderella!” Silvia continued. “I didn’t know the story, but I liked the sound of it! Then the teacher kept on reading names and I heard ‘Silvia.’ I raised my hand and asked to change my name, from Cinderella to Silvia. Silvia sounded like my Chinese name. I have been Silvia ever since!”

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Next to my cubicle, another patient was being prepped for his anesthesia.  He spoke in Spanish with the anesthesiologist, who was the same assigned to me. I had read her biography, which she sent ahead of the surgery. Carolyn Ríos is a young Puerto Rican from the Bronx, in New York. Today, she lives in the Mission District. She was animated and engaging as she shared with her patient their mutual love for lechón (roasted pig). The Puerto Rican Day Parade came up again!

When it was my turn for the anesthesia, I was no longer apprehensive.

I woke up in the recovery room. Next to me sat a Filipina nurse. She asked me how I felt and told me where I was. Within a minute (or so I felt) we were having a nice conversation. I said that I was a retired professor at San Francisco State. She smiled and shared that her daughter was a dancer and her son was also an artist. “He could be really good! You should see his graffiti work! Whatever they choose is fine with me! As long as they are happy!”

I cannot end this column without naming my surgeon, Dr. David Minh Le.  When we met at his office, we discovered that we both were Cal Berkeley alumni. (Go Bears!)

Dr. Le is a Vietnamese American, raised in Southern California. I mentioned to him that, as an undergraduate student in Berkeley, I had taken part in many rallies against the war in Vietnam. He said that he might have done the same… but he was not born yet! He added: “Perhaps the fact that I became a doctor was due to my parents having to leave Vietnam! And now, I can operate on you!”

There are other sub-stories and other interesting characters. The main point remains: I was the privileged recipient of wonderfully professional work, carried out by a team of people who came (or their families came) to the United States from various countries, and they have enriched it with their arrival.

This was a brief summary of my personal multicultural healing act. But now we need a bigger healing act: We need to heal this country. Let us start by stopping the fear and hatred of immigrants.

Story by: Carlos Barón

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!