Familiarity in Unfamiliar Places: Father Figures

Magandang umaga!” he yelled across the hospital corridor as I walked in – Tagalog for “Good Morning,” I later found out – dang, I shoulda known that. I nodded back, I’ve become accustomed to him teaching me new words and responded, “Kumusta po kayo? (How are you?)” He let out his youthful chuckle, “Mabuti (Good).” – I’m getting better. Ah, but I forgot to look up how to say Happy New Years… Of course the next thing he said. Should have seen that coming! But, that’s ok, I’ll get him next time.

Growing up half Filipino and half Chinese, the second generation born in the United States, I’m quite estranged from my parental roots. It was easier to assimilate for my grandparents, coming from very poor backgrounds, to achieve the American Dream; but, through medical training I’ve met a lot of Filipino people (mainly nurses, some doctors) that have taught me bits and pieces about where I come from. I remember in Residency how much I loved to work on holidays at our county hospital (Lyndon B. Johnson) because of the amazing Filipino food I’d get to jump in on in the middle of the night, between weaning vents on babies and getting ready for surprise deliveries, but I digress. If you know me, you’d know, I’m about as Americanized (or Whitewashed) as it comes, with my cowboy boots and my country music and my lack of speaking, well, my ‘mother tongues.’

But, it was still quite a surprise hearing these words when I met Dr. M, an older African-American/Black OBGYN in… Huntsville? Texas?

I remember my first shift when I got called in for a C-Section later into the night, a brand new nervous Attending. He had seen my phone number pop up on the Caller ID, “916… You from Sacramento?” Born and raised. Northern California was a place I called home for 20 years until I uprooted and spent the majority of the last decade in the deep South. So you might Imagine, I was comforted by the familiarity yet surprised at first: What would someone in Huntsville, TX know about Sacramento? Then I saw his scrub cap, cardinal red with white writing… Stanford.

We started talking and soon I found out that he wasn’t always from Texas. That he too had come from California. Not only that, but he had gone to medical school at UC San Diego – the very place that years later I attended for my undergraduate degree – later, going on to train at Stanford, close to home for me in Northern California. In fact, my sister went to college down the street. What a small world… What are the odds!? I found out that we had a shared interest in language. Before I went down the path of Medicine, a majority of my free time had been spent in being what I considered to be a “Cultural Chameleon.” I would attend Nowruz (New Years) festivals with our Persian group in college. I studied Italian for almost 2 years culminating in living in Florence, Italy for a stint. And, for 1 year while I waited to start medical school, I audited a Russian class at the local college. And Dr. M? All the languages. Ah, no wonder the Tagalog. I was ecstatic! I had moved to Houston thinking that the cultural diversity and reported 90 spoken languages would bring me back to my pre-Medicine interests, albeit I ended up and still to this day speak mainly in Spanish – well, except for when I forced my Pediatric Cardiology team to learn a little bit of Swahili with me to communicate with better with a family. So, it was refreshing to come across someone else that had just as much of an interest in the world – something that I’ve lost over the submersion into Medicine.

Since our first meeting, I’ve come to have the utmost respect for him as a surgeon, as a teacher and as someone sharing some surprising roots. He has been willing to train me on circumcisions, a procedure I’ve needed help learning to find more jobs and we joke around all of the time. His patients and his coworkers love him. And then one day, after several months, I realized something, I couldn’t quite figure out about the connection that made me so happy to meet this man in a small town in Texas and another reason I realized I looked up to him. He reminded me of someone. He acted decades younger than he is. I couldn’t quite put it together at first, but he reminded me of someone.

And then I realized, If my Dad was alive (the original Dr. Cabrera), he’d be the exact same age.

The path I’m walking, I’ve sometimes chosen and other times just fallen into. Ten years ago I didn’t think I’d end up in Huntsville, TX and even less likely to meet a multilingual similarly “Cultural Chameleon” Californian here, but it reminds me to keep my eyes open. You never know what paths will cross and what will lead you home when you wander far enough.

And, the life lesson I’ll never forget that I remind myself when I feel lost in the journey figuring out where I’m supposed to end up:

“So, what in the WORLD brought you from California to… Huntsville?”
“Well, they needed me.”

R.I.P. The Original Dr. Cabrera 5/29/2010

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