By Sarah Auerbach '96
When my sister and I were little, I feared a tidal wave would flood our house. “What would we do?” I demanded, and Eliza, 3, piped up, “We’d put on our bathing suits.”
Eliza is still not afraid of immersion: She’s a pediatrician at the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, where violent crime is nine times more prevalent than in the rest of Boston and half the residents live below the poverty line. Eliza speaks to her patients in English, Spanish and, through translators, Somali and Amharic. When she asks her patients’ parents whether they have enough food, they often say no. She was once called in after a mother discovered a newborn in her teenaged daughter’s bed; the parents hadn’t known their daughter was pregnant. Eliza sometimes feels that diagnosing ailments and prescribing cures is so low on her patients’ list of needs as to be almost meaningless.
Eliza lives where she works. When she started at Whittier, she lived on the border of the South End and Roxbury, where Boston’s sharp racial and socioeconomic lines blur. During her residency at Columbia, she lived among her patients, Dominican and Mexican immigrants and Hassidic Jews. Her immersion helps her foresee what cultural beliefs might cut her patients off from medical care. She knows, for example, that Hassidic Jews can’t press elevator buttons on Saturdays—the Sabbath—so elevators in the hospital must be set on automatic. She can often predict her patients’ actions. “I say, ‘Don’t put a coin over the umbilical hernia,’ and they say, ‘How did you know I was going to do that?’”
Even when culture isn’t an issue, Eliza’s daily life is immersive. “I’ll have a room with one person getting an IV and another with someone getting a nebulizer and I’ll be seeing a new patient in another and it’s kind of exciting, keeping all the threads going, and when it works, it’s fantastic.”
Eliza speaks like that, one long breath. If you know her, you hear the narrow pauses between her thoughts for what they are: her coming up for air before she dives back in.
To learn more about Amherst’s campaign, Lives of Consequence; to nominate a friend or classmate whom you admire and would like to honor; or to read about other lives of consequence, please visit www.amherst.edu/campaign.