Reprinted with permission from La Clinica—A Doctor’s Journey Across Borders, by David Sklar (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press; 2009). Copyright © 2009, University of New Mexico Press.
As I approached his father, I smelled pungent folk remedies. It was common for patients to utilize both curanderos—traditional healers—and physicians in an attempt to maximize their chances for a cure. I felt the pack of herbs and oils as I pressed on the man’s abdomen. A look of surprise and pain registered against a backdrop of stoic denial. Don Luis shook my hand forcefully as he introduced himself. He told me the pain had been increasing over the past three days. He pressed my hand against the area of his abdomen where the pain seemed worst, as if my hand might reach through the skin and squeeze the pain from the diseased organ.
“Your hand cured my grandson,” he said, and he pointed to the baby clutching at its mother’s breast. There were no signs of the illness or the seizure, and I almost wondered if it was the same baby. It all seemed so long ago.
Perhaps if it hadn’t been my last day, I might have gone along—pretended my hand was magical, powerful. But it was my last day, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said, pulling my hand away.
Demetrio stared at me, disbelieving. They had brought me here for a cure.
“Don’t you have a medicine or injection to cure my father?” he asked.
“But you have your bag of medicine,” he said.
“Yes, I brought medicine for pain, diarrhea, ulcers, but I’m not sure what is wrong,” I said.
“It could be appendicitis. We should take him to the clinic. Dr. Silva and Carlos are there.”
“No, he wants to stay home. There are soldiers.” Demetrio’s eyes pleaded with me insistently. And it scared me.
“Why?” I asked, even as I knew the answer, resisting it, not wanting to participate in the plan.
Demetrio said, “Por favor.”
“Your hand, please,” said don Luis.
I looked at my hand, and I didn’t want to pretend that I was performing some kind of magical cure. I wanted to go home, to get out of the place. But I knew he needed it, wanted it, believed in it, so I put my hand on his stomach where the pain was the worst. He moaned softly as I felt the dry skin that covered whatever was wrong inside. I massaged the stomach slowly, feeling a small lump—perhaps a muscle, perhaps something else. The muscles under the skin yielded to my fingers, slowly relaxing so that I could touch everything inside. After a few minutes, I stopped.