Dr. Chan and Mrs. Geng (not their real names) eased out of their chairs in the waiting room using their matching wooden canes, the kind distributed by the hospital free of charge. At 89, Dr. Chan was stooped and frail, his body paper-thin. He seemed as though he might topple over from the breeze generated by the opening and closing of the clinic door. A translucent red plastic shopping bag from a Chinatown market dangled, as always, from one wrist. His other hand rested behind the elbow of his wife, not for support, but to assist her. Mrs. Geng was younger by more than 15 years, and far more robust-appearing, but her progressing Alzheimer's disease and his stalwart chivalrousness made Dr. Chan the caregiver. He even carried her beige vinyl purse for her. Their clothes were worn, almost threadbare, but clean, pressed, and always in layers for warmth.
Despite two decades in this country, Mrs. Geng spoke few words in English; her husband translated back and forth for her. Dr. Chan, who had been a cardiologist in China, spoke heavily accented, formal English in a whispery, halting voice. His utterances surfaced in brief puffs, with gaps in between that seemed to reflect the effort that English required. His voice felt as translucent as the shopping bag he always toted with him. I had to strain just to hear his words, and even more so to extract the meaning from the tangle of his accent. But it was always worth the effort, because without fail I uncovered intelligently-structured diction, with a dry wit to boot. Dr. Chan once told me that his English teacher in China taught only Shakespeare, and his German teacher only Goethe. "Not... very... practical," he observed, in his studiously parsed syllables...
Danielle Ofri is a writer and practicing internist at New York City's Bellevue Hospital. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book is Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients.