The Perennial Question for the People Who Emigrate

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago to meet my friends from Poland. We are all physicians, all surgeons. We were trained by one of the most prominent Polish professors of surgery, a very well-educated, renaissance man, speaking five or six languages. Prof. Nielubowicz was in turn trained in this country and thought the American medical system was the best in the world, but demoralizing for young surgeons coming from Poland. Perhaps he was thinking, “Don’t go over there, since you may not come back.”

I hadn’t seen them for quite a while. Some for thirty – forty years. They are at the ends of their medical careers, while I just gave my scrubs away. I cleaned them, folded neatly and left on the seat of my chair in the office. On top of the thick pile, I put the keys to my office. Just like that. No looking back.

The time span was such that the list of topics for conversations was endless. It started with questions “Why don’t you work,” to be followed by “Why do you still work.” There was some discussion about the health problems, but not that much. Much talk about family life, where some of us had to say more, since for some of us the family lives were more complicated than the others.

After such a long-span, one tends to look for what has been accomplished and “What would happen if…. ”

There is this general nagging question of what would have happened if we had stayed in Poland. Then we would have gone through the fight to change the hated communist system and then the implementation of the new one. I don’t think anyone regretted coming to this country. The dominant feeling was that here we were controlling our fate and couldn’t blame anyone for the occasional poor results. In Poland, that’s another story. One could always put the blame on a rotten system. Most of us did quite well here financially, maybe some much better than the others. But for the family life, well, that’s another story and each of us had a different one to tell.

We all agreed that we couldn’t practice in Poland this kind of medicine which we’ve learned in this county. But it came with the price of harder work, longer hours and bigger legal obstacles. Also the language appeared to be a problem for some, particularly in places like Chicago, where most of the patients are Polish.

Did we have to come here? Well, let me give you a different example.

The Polish school of mathematics is known quite well. Initiated during the interbellum between WW I and WW II, lasted long in the second half of the 20th century. One of the achievements of young Polish mathematicians was deciphering the Enigma, a German military coding machine. The alumni of our mathematic and engineering schools were highly regarded and sought after beyond the borders of our country. I have a few friends who did very well in the Silicon Valley boiling volcano, But the newest generation of mathematicians and software engineers doesn’t have to come here. They can work from their homes and offices in Poland. Since the standard of living is much higher there now and professional and personal communication is almost as good through the internet, they can have the best of both worlds: stay in the country of their parents with good living standards and work in their profession without many restrictions. And even if the knowledge of language is not perfect, still may be sufficient.

We couldn’t, however, do that with our medical education. Still, it’s good to think about what can be done in the era of the internet.

I can’t help sometimes to feel resentment from the friends who stayed in Poland after going back to visit. “We stayed here and fought for a change, and you…? You chose the easy life.”

Well, it wasn’t easy. It was just different. And a chance for failure was as big here as was back in Poland. Maybe even bigger.

But I couldn’t help but smile to see all those round faces.

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