The clouds in my grandfather’s eyes overtook me, drowning my heart. His gaze was soft and kind, filled with love. With a wide smile he called out to me, “baradu ko,” my beautiful.
My trip to Ethiopia, my family’s native land, allowed me to see the world through a new perspective. Yet my beloved grandfather was seeing me for the first time through the cataracts that plagued him.
This experience opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone everywhere has the same resources and standard of living I do. The first trip of my 11-year-old life affected who I am and who I could be.
It was one of the moments that inspired my passion to pursue a career in service work, specifically in public health and medicine.
Naively, I assumed my grandfather would be quickly healed, but that assumption faded fast. Hopping on a bus we braced for the long commute in our quest to seek medical help. Yawning with complaint I wondered why we had to go so far just to see a doctor. Looking around, I saw many others with the same clouds in their eyes, waiting to be helped just as we were. Yet there was only one doctor, only one resource; I was shocked. I had never experienced such limited access to health care, wishing I could help my grandfather in the way it seemed others couldn’t.
Walking through the crowded streets of Addis Ababa, my eyes widened to the poor public health conditions I was witnessing. The big companies and the wealthy, however, seemed to have higher standards of living. For the first time in my life, I saw how money can drastically affect someone’s access to health care. I became aware of my privilege when I saw people begging on the street who were desperately in need of access to medical assistance, while for me at home in Minnesota it would be a simple phone call.
As we were strolling to the shop with my father, my footsteps began to drag and my lips curled down. My father placed money in my hand to give to a fragile old woman with a toothless smile and bruised face. She needed medical care, too, but how could she get it? I thought of my grandfather and his need for eye surgery.
It was another moment that fueled my passion for helping others through a career in health care.
On my trip, those around me called me “Hatta Fira,” someone who loves to be with people, for the way I always sat with those older than me, learning from them and wanting to help as much as I could. Despite not having the best resources, people were always smiling and helping each other the best they could. Rather than being consumed by worry about wealth or resources, they valued what they had and supported each other in ways that the government and their society had been failing to.
This instilled in me humility and some of the most important values I hold — further inspiring my passion to help those in need of assistance, humbly sympathizing with them. I was not only shown what it means to genuinely support others, but I was also shown what it means to embody important human characteristics, such as sympathy, humility, kindness and gratitude.
Although my grandfather passed away last year, I hope he would be happy with what he sees in me now. That memory of my experience in Ethiopia keeps my passion for helping others strong, and I will be someone who helps those like my beloved grandfather through a career in health care.