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Boston College Graduate School of Social Work
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Compassion: A Common Language

Jessica Avila MSW '08

Jessica Avila MSW '08 in her clinical placement at Shriner's Hospital in Boston.

Shriners Hospital in Boston treats child burn victims from all over the world, regardless of their ability to pay. For second—year student Jessica Avila, the biggest challenge of her field placement at Shriners wasn't the medical aspect of her work, but the cultural barriers between herself and international patients.

"The most difficult thing in the beginning was getting adjusted to speaking through a medical interpreter," recalls Avila, who worked with patients who spoke dozens of different languages. How do you connect with a patient if he'll only make eye contact with the interpreter?

Avila's toughest case came in February 2008 when she met a nine-year-old Iraqi girl named Hadiya and her aunt.

Hadiya was at a bonfire near her home in Iraq when someone threw kerosene on it causing an explosion. The flames ignited Hadiya's dress, burning 35 percent of her body. Her chest, face, arms, and legs were disfigured. She was treated at a U.S. Army hospital in Iraq, and then transferred to Shriners. Hadiya's parents were not able to come with her, so she traveled with an aunt. Both spoke only Arabic.

"Obviously, their culture was very, very different," recalls Avila, who worked hard to connect with Hadiya's aunt, a traditional Iraqi woman who wore a burhka. But progress was slow.

"Jessica did a lot of educating the aunt and the patient about American culture, norms, and health care," says Jillian Solivan, Avila's supervisor at Shriners.

Over the next three months of Hadiya's treatment, the aunt came to trust Avila. When the little girl was well enough to start walking again, Avila first asked the aunt what type of clothing would be appropriate for Hadiya to wear—a dress, pants, head scarf? And when it came to planning the girl's rehabilitation, Avila made sure she asked the aunt what kind of activities Hadiya was used to doing back home.

"Since they're from the country, the girl had to walk three miles on foot to get water, six times a day. Auntie says this is what she does," says Avila. "So we needed to take that into consideration."

Hadiya and her aunt are back in Iraq now. And thanks to them, Avila has learned a lot about herself and her passion for medical social work.  "Jillian said, 'Maybe this is your calling,'" Avila recalls, and she couldn't agree more. When she completes her degree, she plans to get her clinical license and work in a hospital.