Just a few short weeks ago, I celebrated 35 years of living in America and being an American citizen. 35 years. I have spent more time in my adopted country than in South Africa, my country of birth. Since the 4th of July is imminent, I am taking the opportunity to reflect on this extraordinary country.
When I was growing up in South Africa, there was no television until 1978; even then, it was limited to three hours per day. It was the “olden days” when “internet” and “WiFi” were not words yet. My friends and I thought of the United States as a vast, faraway place filled with protests, violence, and racial unrest, where Hollywood directors ruled the roost. When the television show “Dallas” came to South Africa, people believed that J. R. Ewing was the prototypical American male.
Even though I spoke English when came here (English has always been my primary language, not Zulu, as many of you believe), it was quite the adjustment to learn “American English.” The language and idioms are different.
On July 4, 1984, I was in South Nassau Communities Hospital as the only medical doctor in charge of pediatrics. I was paged that day to the “OR.” OR – “What’s that?,” I asked the operator. After being laughed at and popping Advil because of the headache from the learning curve, I finally got down that OR was the Theatre, ER is Casualty, DR is Labor and Delivery, and a Band-Aid is a plaster. My “plaster,” by the way, is not plaster of Paris for casting fractures.
It did not stop there. Diaper is nappy, the trunk of the car is the boot, the engine area is the bonnet, traffic lights are robots and pacifiers are “dummies.” Most important, a can of Coke is the thirst-quenching tin of cold drink. It took time but I got down the language and its idioms, culture, vast distances between destinations, hoards of people everywhere, brisk pace and lack of leisure time. Driving on the other side of the road and four-lane highways were terrifying for a while.
The cultural experiences notwithstanding, America has offered me the opportunity grow in several areas. First is my career. I was blessed that I did not have to completely retrain when I came from South Africa. I completed a fellowship and then “hung out” the proverbial shingle, so to speak. I love my patients and experience the greatest joy in watching them grow into healthy adults who marry, begin their own families and start yet another generation in this practice.
Little did I know when hanging out that shingle to start building a private practice that health care would become an industry and that insurance companies would turn it upside down and inside out. “Managed care” is such a misnomer because the reality is that “You manage and we (insurance companies) don’t care.”
Knowing what I know now about the industry, would I still hang out that shingle? Yes. Despite the obstacles, I am gratified to know that I help people.
This country should be proud of its plethora of programs to meet people’s health care needs.
- Women Infants and Children’s program (WIC) helps pregnant and nursing women and their children up to five years of age with nutritional and other needs.
- Through early diagnosis and treatment, Early Intervention (EI) helps change the trajectory of development for babies, toddlers and young children.
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides healthy and affordable nutrition options to many Americans.
- Vaccines for Children provides vaccines to patients on Medicaid, Managed Medicaid and Child Health Plus as well as to those who are under-insured or have no insurance.
These four programs are but the tip of the iceberg. We are a country that is blessed with caring about its citizens.
America has also given me the opportunity to be an Orthodox Jew and be supported in it. People here (at least in major cities with significant Jewish populations) are aware of the concept of observing Shabbos. Back in the day, this was unheard of in South Africa. My friends and I struggled through medical school, internship, residency and the army to keep Shabbos then because the country lacked an awareness of it. During the compulsory army service, it was not uncommon to encounter anti-Semitism from the commanding officers once they saw the yarmulke under your government-issued beret. There was no person or office to complain to. You had to make do and daven for siyata diShmaya (Divine assistance).
In America, furthermore, you can walk the streets in a state of freedom. It is not a police state where you have to be worried whether someone will turn you into the government authorities. I’m not so sure that my American-born peers and even my American-born children appreciate freedom of speech and living in a democracy. Our children’s schools are supplied with textbooks and many school districts offer busing. Rabbonim, askanim and others have built an infrastructure so we can live as Jews as we go about our lives in America. It is no small thing. And never should we take it for granted, even for a moment.
G-d Bless America.
Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.