When I was in high school, I signed up to volunteer at a local hospital during the summer. My parents hoped it would bulk up my college applications in the hopes of helping myself. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but either way I started getting dropped off in front of the hospital a few times a week. So here goes nothing, I figured.
Hospitals try to be flexible with the individual comfort levels of their volunteers while meeting their own needs at the same time. They gave me the choice of patient contact or no patient contact, and I chose no patient contact. My oldest sister volunteered in patient transport at the same hospital years before me when she was a teenager, and I remembered her story of being pulled into helping a doctor with an intense emergency situation (I think it was holding someone down while he did something with their shattered leg?). It was part of what inspired her to pursue medicine later on, but to me it sounded terrifying and was enough to make me choose no patient contact.
I was placed in the pathology department. Pathology was busy, but I did filing and other simple clerical work in a pretty quiet office nook and mostly stayed away from the laboratory and cutting rooms. The cutting room was where things from surgery were sent to be tested. Sarah, one of the other volunteers in pathology, warned me once not to go in there because there was just a leg out on a table that day. Horrifying.
Speaking of Sarah, she was friendly and kind. She was also in high school, and she wanted to pursue biology in college and go to medical school. She was also the first Muslim I had ever met. Being homeschooled in a white evangelical family didn’t offer many opportunities to meet new people outside those immediate circles. Sarah was very nice to me, and we used to email back and forth while we were volunteering. She thought it was interesting that I was homeschooled, not weird. I was thrilled to have made a new friend. We both thought a teenage boy we volunteered with was particularly hot and giggled about it at least every ten minutes. We discovered that Sarah was even friends with a girl named Desiree who I knew from a Christian youth group, because they went to the same high school. They were planning on going to their junior prom as a friend group because they didn’t have dates, and Sarah invited me to come with them as her and Desiree’s friend date. I don’t know what possessed me to think for even a second that MY parents would ever let me go to a public school prom, much less with a Muslim friend. I remember writing in my journal how excited I was, and later writing about how crushed I felt when they said I wasn’t going in a million years.
Sarah and Desiree were understanding, and while I became Facebook friends with Sarah once I was in college and kept in touch there for awhile, at some point we didn’t say anything anymore except for birthday wall posts. I always thought she was funny, very smart, and great with people. I bet she became an amazing doctor.
Maybe the most exciting thing about volunteering at the hospital was getting to have lunch in the staff cafeteria. I was given a small voucher every day I worked, and I would get a tuna sandwich and a bottle of orange juice and sit in the corner so I could see everything. Doctors in white coats and plastic over their shoes, nurses in scrubs, or other volunteers in their department color-coded shirts (mine was a sort of coral pink) would go in and out, gossiping and talking the whole time. It felt like a real life hospital drama show, and I was a fly on the wall.
Once an Asian volunteer who I didn’t know suddenly brought her lunch tray, sat down at my table across from me, and casually started speaking in Korean to me. I had no idea what to do, and the only reason I knew it was Korean was because of my tae kwon do classes. I can recognize it, but I can’t understand it. Unless you need me to count from 1 to 10, which believe it or not, doesn’t come up often. I told her I don’t speak Korean, and she looked surprised and responded with “But you’re half Korean…” She didn’t seem like she had guessed, she seemed like she was sure I would understand. I wish I had asked her why she thought that or if someone had told her that, but instead I just said I wasn’t half Korean. She stared at me, got up, and moved to a table on the opposite end of the cafeteria. I felt incredibly awkward and like I had done something wrong, but also like it was hilarious and I was afraid to laugh. I’ve had a number of people say I could pass for part Asian. Including my brother-in-law from Hong Kong! That girl in the cafeteria is just one of those bizarre life moments that will never be explained.