Wife, mother, author, cellist, editor and physician, Danielle Ofri richly demonstrates just how versatile an individual she is in “Medicine in Translation,” her third book. Born in New York to an observant Israeli father whose family came from Yemen and a nonreligious mother with roots in Eastern Europe, she is married to Benjy who works in software development and who grew up in a modern Orthodox family. He attended day school but is less religious as an adult than he was as a youngster, sharing with his wife attachments to the cultural aspects of Judaism and to Israel. They have three children — Naava, Noah and Ariel.
Ofri received her bachelor’s degree at McGill University in Montreal and then spent 10 years at New York University and Bellevue Hospital, earning her medical doctor degree as well as a doctorate in biochemistry, followed by her residency in internal medicine. She traveled for two years, working as a freelance doctor in East Hampton and New Mexico, and visiting Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru where she learned Spanish. During this time, she wrote stories about her years as a medical student and resident, eventually publishing them in her first book, “Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue.” In 2005, her second book, “Incidental Findings: Lessons from My Patients in the Art of Medicine” appeared with descriptions of her experiences as a teacher. Chapters from these books were selected for inclusion in “Best American Essays 2002” and “Best American Essays 2005.”
Now an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital and Associate Professor at the New York University School of Medicine, Ofri sees patients, teaches medical students and residents, writes, and edits. Co-founder of the Bellevue Literary Review, she is interested in the relationship between literature and medicine.
“Medicine in Translation” focuses on Ofri’s immigrant patients, a number of whom are undocumented, thus limiting their eligibility for treatment, especially for transplants. She describes many of them who are being seen at the Survivors of Torture Clinic. Their stories are often heart-rending, posing tough questions about their limited right to health care and the ethical responsibility of the United States. Ofri confronts these dilemmas forthrightly and with great sensitivity. She also describes the difficulties she faces in dealing with her many Spanish-speaking patients.
To cope with the language problem, she persuaded her husband to spend a year in Costa Rica so that she could become more fluent in Spanish. She eloquently describes the impact of this experience on her family and herself as she gives birth to her third child. Her comfort zone was enlarged when she found an obstetrician who had studied in Haifa and who was fluent in Hebrew. Similarly, when her son had a seed in his nose, her anxiety was eased when she saw a mezuza on the office door of the ear, nose and throat specialist to whom the family was referred.
Returning to Bellevue after the year in Costa Rica, Ofri found her Spanish improved, enabling her to communicate more easily with a number of her patients. However, the most poignant stories she tells deal with patients from China, Senegal, Turkey, New Zealand, Tibet and Bangladesh. Her descriptions are substantially enhanced as she adds her own reactions to the accounts of the patients’ ailments. Readers will inevitably be moved by the issues confronted by immigrants as they seek medical care in the United States, which is for them a foreign country with an unfamiliar language. Ofri’s sensitivity to these patients inevitably engenders respect for her superb insights and capabilities.
While the book emphasizes cross-cultural issues in medical care, describing the problems confronted by immigrants in navigating the American health care system, it also highlights the skills and sensitivities of one exceedingly able doctor in that system.
(Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)