Third Time's The Charm

I can’t believe that I am wrapping up my third incredible week in Athens. I have been here for such a short amount of time, but I already consider this place my home and am dreading having to leave. I have walked around the city so much that I may have to invest in a new pair of tennis shoes before my time here comes to an end! This weekend I hiked up to the Acropolis and got an incredible view of the city. I also managed to stumble upon a theater that was playing the new Spider-Man: Far From Home movie in English (with Greek subtitles) which I was SO excited about. Overall, it’s been a great week, but not for any of the reasons listed above...

My job as a receptionist at AMURTEL has come to an end, but as the saying goes “when one one door closes, another opens.” I was acting as substitute receptionist for Catherine, a paramedic from the UK who has been working in Athens for the past three months with various NGOS that assist refugees and migrants with access to healthcare (including AMURTEL and Medical Volunteers International). I met her for the first time this Tuesday when she resumed her position. She told me that she had been working on compiling a list of places in Athens that offer free healthcare services for low-income populations, refugees, and migrants, and asked me to help organize all the information she had managed to pull together. Although it seems like a simple enough task, when she showed me the document, I was blown away by how many NGOs were operating within Athens! There was MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders), MDM (Médecines Du Monde, Doctors of the World), Seeds of Humanity, multiple social clinics and social pharmacies… and this doesn’t even begin to cover all the independent specialities general physicians can refer patients to! I worked all week on organizing and dividing the one document into three separate documents (NGOs and GPs, Specialities, and Social Work). The issue was that many of these organizations come-and-go very quickly, some staying for only a few weeks or months until they run out of money and resources. Some of them change addresses, phone numbers, and opening/closing times very regularly so it is difficult to provide accurate, up-to-date information to patients. I believe I will continue working on improving this document throughout next week, trying to correct any old information and adding any new organizations I find along the way.

The highlight of my week, however, was when Catherine invited me to come observe/ assist an unofficial street clinic Wednesday evening after work. I told her I was studying biology on a pre-medical track at FSU and can speak (broken) Hindi, and she said that it would be a very unique experience for me to have. Some patients who come to the clinic speak Urdu (similar to Hindi), and she also asked if I could assist with translation. I learned that volunteers within the Athens community gather on Wednesday and Sunday evenings in front of the steps at the Local Municipal Market to help provide for the lower-income, homeless, and refugee/migrant populations. A lot of the people in the area are homeless needle drug users and sex workers and rely on this gathering and the street clinic for basic food, hygiene, medical assistance, and referrals on where to go with more serious health issues. 

So after working at AMURTEL on Wednesday, and after grabbing some delicious falafel pitas for lunch at a local Arabic joint, Catherine and I were on our way to the “steps” outside of the Local Municipal Market. When I arrived, I saw that there was a library van, a mock shower, portable washer/dryer in a van , music playing, food cooking, and a decent amount of people. Besides me and Catherine, who were outside triaging patients, there were three third-year medical students (two from the UK and one from Germany) who worked inside the center with the patients. I can’t even begin to explain how impactful this experience was for me; it was nothing like I had ever seen while volunteering in the United States, and I truly don’t believe that is a way to experience something like this within the United States. I was able to help translate some Urdu successfully (much to my surprise and delight!) and observed patients who came in with some absolutely shocking health problems. One man who came in looked perfectly healthy to me, and after conversing with Catherine for about 20 minutes and exchanging numbers, she explained to me that he had a bullet lodged between his brain and brain stem! He came to ask Catherine for a letter to present to the Greek government as he was seeking to travel out of the country for surgery to remove the bullet, but his interview was 9 months away. With a letter from a doctor, he might be able to move up his interview a little earlier. Another man came in, completely high on morphine, with an enormous stab wound on his abdomen. The wound looked infected and the medical students were concerned that he may be septic because of his elevated temperature. They managed to clean up his wound and gave him some saline tubes to keep the wound clean, but because the patient was a homeless addict, there is not much they were able to do.

I left the clinic at around 9 p.m. and stayed up all night thinking about my experience there. All the cultures and languages coming together to share a meal, volunteers coming together to help their fellow human, and how much the smallest bit of healthcare meant to the patients coming in seeking help. The medical volunteers and organizers who put this clinic and gathering together did not seek fame or glory or recognition, but just out of the goodness of their heart. It was an amazing service opportunity, learning opportunity, and I look forward to continue working with this organization, along with AMURTEL, during my time in Athens.


— Megha Patel