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  • "To make a difference . . .":Narrative Desire in Global Medicine
  • Byron J. Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good

If, as Arthur Frank (2002) writes, "moral life, for better and worse, takes place in storytelling," this collection of narratives written by physicians working in field settings in global medicine gives us a glimpse of some aspects of moral experience, practice, and dilemmas in settings of poverty and low health care resources. These essays are written from the midst of practice, in diverse settings in Africa, South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. The majority of the writers are practitioners of contemporary 'global medicine'—physicians from North America or Europe who spend part of their lives flying into settings of poverty or special need to practice medicine and work with on-going collaborative clinical and public health systems—while a smaller number are working in the societies in which they were born. Although a few work for classic humanitarian organizations or have developed their own local NGO's, the great majority are engaged in the 'hybrid life' described by Robert Riviello and noted by Renée Fox, moving between academic medical centers and distant health care systems that are supported by local governments, major international organizations and funding agencies, and international NGO's like Partners in Health. These diverse forms of practice have become a common model for contemporary clinicians engaged in what has emerged as a new discipline of global health or global medicine, and these narratives give us a glimpse of some of the enduring, as well as newly emerging, forms of moral practice and ethical dilemmas characteristic of today's global medicine.

Many of these stories are filled with the tension and pathos that makes clinical narratives powerful to read. Physicians are forced to make unfathomable decisions about whether to resuscitate and keep a baby alive, using all means available, or to let the infant die, whether to carry out a procedure that will save an infant in birth but would put the mother at risk, about how to deal with a cancer found in a very advanced state. However, virtually all of the stories transcend these classical stories of the decisions physicians are forced to make by being placed in settings of great scarcity of resources, which stand in particular contrast to the academic medical settings in North America or Europe where many of these global medicine specialists have trained and many continue to practice. The unspeakable inequality of resources emerges throughout these narratives as a kind of master theme, as the underlying moral, as opposed to plot, which gives meaning and sense to the stories. For those who practice medicine in such settings, global inequalities and scarcity of medical resources are deeply felt. They produce the rage that Jeffrey Deal describes. ("I learned to despise American churches during that time, a time when my world encompassed a dying newborn in Sudan, as well as the air conditioned padded seats [End Page 121] of our affluent suburban church.") They produce the distinctive experiences of helplessness and pain felt by clinicians who cannot separate how they would be able to treat such a patient at home from how they have to practice in these settings. For those clinicians working in their own societies, scarcity of resources often produces deep anger at the corrupt governments that fail to support basic human services for the great majority of their population. ("We were temporary actors performing in the cynical play of scarcity on permanent display in Port-au-Prince," writes Haitian physician Paul Pierre about his experience prior to joining Partners in Health.)

But for those who regularly travel back and forth across the divide between rich and poor, whether across national boundaries or within their own society, the challenge to live a moral life is unendingly complicated. While becoming a part of a struggle for global justice with colleagues and advocates from both sides of the divide, few of the narrators can avoid personal feelings of ambivalence and guilt at being able to easily move from one side of that divide to the other back home. Many fantasize about giving up their lives in the north to devote themselves...


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pp. 121-124
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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