Uniformed Services Health Sciences University medical student Kristen Bishop was doing clinical rotations at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth when she was asked to change her rotations at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a mission special.
In late August 2021, the Department of Defense began airlifting nearly 130,000 people out of Afghanistan as part of the withdrawal of US forces. The operation was one of the largest mass non-combatant evacuations in US history. It wasn’t long before the evacuees arrived at Walter Reed in need of medical assistance.
Bishop was an Air Force airborne linguist before attending medical school at USU. She flew on a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane, where she said she analyzed intelligence in foreign languages. Fluent in several languages, including Persian Farsi and Dari, Bishop’s skills were suddenly in demand and she was asked to help as a translator.
“I was briefed on everything that was going on at Walter Reed – we were getting a lot of Afghan travellers,” Bishop said. “At that time, they didn’t have any translators in person.” So she left Portsmouth and returned to Bethesda.
“It was great,” she says, “because I got to see entire families of patients; patients who needed surgery, as well as patients on the internal medicine side. I also saw them in pediatrics and it was very gratifying. »
Bishop, who is now in her third year of medical school at USU after initially completing the university’s two-year medical degree prep program, says she thinks her journey to school of medicine and her choice of medical schools gave her this unique opportunity.
Bishop describes her experience as a translator for evacuees as “profound”.
“It feels like the culmination of my efforts and everything so far in my life, because I’ve been able to do what I love – helping people and specifically using the skills I have – to serve,” says Bishop. “…It’s a very direct application of what I have to offer and I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity.”
She says each patient’s reaction to her was different. However, she found that most people had feelings of immense gratitude, not only to her, but also to the rest of the medical team.
“There were several times when people expressed that they were very grateful to have received care and that they were receiving better care than they would have received had they not been evacuated – so it was also very humiliating for me,” Bishop said.
Many of those she spoke with were surprised that as a woman she wears the uniform and can also speak and write in multiple languages and pursue a career in medicine.
“I’ve heard more than one person say, ‘Oh, so you’re a woman and you do all these things?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, those are the opportunities we have here,’ Bishop said.
In one case, while working in pediatrics, Bishop encountered a young Afghan girl.
“She found out I spoke Dari and she was so excited. She wanted to talk to me about how I learned and ‘am I going to school?'” Bishop said. “And she took my uniform cover, she put it over her head and she told me she was pretending to be me when she grew up. It was comforting that she could see women who aren’t held back by their gender, and that she meets people who are role models.”
Bishop’s linguistic background and his passion for medicine have given him the unique opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those seeking a better future.