(Repost from 11/12.)
It was almost fifteen years ago that I moved from a sheltered, small town life on the East Coast to San Francisco. Years before, when I was a senior in high school, I had visited on a college tour and vowed that someday, this brilliant city would be my new home. I finally got the chance when it was time for my medical internship and residency. I was thrilled to match at the University of California, San Francisco. The training program here is especially robust because it includes three hospitals: the main academic medical center, a VA hospital, and a county hospital, San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). Each hospital serves a different subset of the population, each with different illnesses and from different walks of life. I elected to spend most of my time caring for the underserved population of SFGH. A county hospital is a safety net for those who do not have insurance. At SFGH, this includes new immigrants, both legal and not, and a large homeless population, many of whom use intravenous drugs. Overdoses, alcohol withdrawal, AIDS related illnesses and tuberculosis were frequent reasons for admission.
Coming from my small town upbringing, much of what I encountered was a shock. My first week of service, one of my first patients went AWOL, and she left leaving a trail of her own blood. The nurses paged me: “Doctora, do you know where your patient is?” I had no clue, but it turned out she had chewed through her intravenous tubing rather than yanking out her IV, before escaping. Presumably she did this so that she would maintain easy access for injecting heroin. There is also the jail ward, where we took care of inmates from the county jail who needed hospitalization. I remember two warnings I was given when I had patients there: don’t close the door behind you (they automatically lock from the outside) and don’t ask the patient his/her reason for incarceration.
In the outpatient clinic, I had my own panel of patients who would see me semi-regularly. The other residents and I all attracted different patients based upon on interests, language ability, and through pure chance. Although my Mandarin is basic, I attracted a fair amount of Chinese-speaking immigrants from China and Southeast Asia. They were appreciative and effusive in their thanks. They always wanted to give me gifts, and would ask me what I wanted. It’s unethical for doctors to accept gifts from patients, and with my panel, who couldn’t even afford their generic prescriptions, it was out of the question. But a few persisted, and I’d occasionally get a surprise gift of a home cooked meal. “You work so hard; now you don’t have to cook dinner when you get home, “ they’d insist, end of discussion.
The purity of these expressions of gratitude has stayed with me as much as the shock of those glimpses into the darker side of the human condition. I’ve noticed the most generous people I’ve encountered have often been the poorest materially.
It’s only fitting that the strongest food memory I have of my long days on the wards (in those pre-restricted work hours days, that would be upwards of 100 hours a week) is an inexpensive, simple, and comforting dish. The offerings at the public cafeteria at SFGH were barely palatable—think steamer trays of mushy frozen vegetables and unrecognizable cuts of meat floating in oil—but I have fond memories of Saturday lunch. I think it was actually the cooks’ way of using up the week’s leftovers, but it was my favorite meal of the week. It was a very basic fried rice using leftover roast turkey or chicken from earlier in the week (not bad when removed from its oil bath) and frozen peas and carrots, which maintained their integrity when quickly stir-fried instead of boiled. The fried rice was seasoned with soy sauce and pepper; I always added a splash of Tabasco from the condiment tray. In honor of the dedicated staff of SFGH and the patients who taught me much about gratitude, I’m recreating that humble Saturday lunch here as Gratitude Fried Rice. Enjoy, and share with your neighbors.
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Gratitude Fried Rice
Serves: 6 to 8
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon canola oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 small onion, diced (about 3/4 cup)
4 cups cold cooked rice (any long-grain variety will do, Jasmine preferred)
2 cups diced roast turkey or chicken, some skin included
2 cups frozen peas and carrots
2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
garnish: Tabasco or other hot sauce
- In a small non-stick frying pan, heat 1 tsp of oil over medium heat. When warm, add beaten eggs and scramble until softly cooked. Take off heat and set aside.
- Heat remaining oil over medium-high heat in a large non-stick frying pan (or seasoned wok) until it is shimmery, then add onions with a pinch of salt . Saute or stir-fry for a few minutes until translucent.
- Before adding the cold cooked rice, use a spatula to break up any large clumps. Add rice to the onion and oil and stir so that the rice is coated with the oil and grains are mainly separate.
- Add the turkey or chicken and continue to stir-fry for a few minutes.
- Add vegetables and continue to stir so that they’re well distributed. Add soy sauce and pepper and lower heat to medium. Continue to stir every few minutes so that the rice doesn’t stick to the pan. Cook just until the vegetables are no longer frozen.
- Add previously scrambled eggs to the fried rice and stir until the eggs are scattered throughout. Adjust seasonings to taste.
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And for dessert, some exciting news: two years ago, the city began building a new hospital on the same campus, with anticipated opening in 2015. Artists from San Francisco’s Precita Eyes helped create a series of murals for the construction site with community members. Take a look to get a sense of what SFGH means to the community.