My First Day in America

The author as a resident at Kings county Hospital Center (Photo courtesy of Jose C. Pangan, Jr.)

The author as a resident at Kings county Hospital Center (Photo courtesy of Jose C. Pangan, Jr.)

I will never forget my first day and first night in America. Most people, of course, will remember their first day in a foreign country. But my first encounter with America was exceptionally memorable for many reasons.

I did not come to America just for a tourist visit. I came to pursue surgical training, which would take a minimum of five years. Therefore, if I had made a mistake in coming over it would’ve been a five-year mistake.

I had never been out of the Philippines before and I had never even taken a commercial airliner before. The only plane I had been in was a C-47 of World War II vintage, when I volunteered to go on a medical mission to some remote island in the Philippines while I was an intern at a US Air Force Hospital in Clark Air Base in Pampanga.

I was a newly married medical graduate who had to leave his wife behind for six months because she needed another six months of study before she could qualify to take the ECFMG exam (Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduates), an examination all foreign graduates had to pass before they could apply for a house staff position (internship or residency) in the US.

I arrived in winter and, coming from a tropical country with temperatures in the high 80's up to the 90's even in December and January, the sudden change in temperature was a shock to my system.

I ended up in Brooklyn, a polyglot borough of New York City even then, where I had signed up for internship at Kings County Hospital Center.  Kings County Hospital was and probably still is the hospital of last resort in Brooklyn. If you are desperately ill, had no means of support and all the other hospitals in the borough did not want you, you ended up at Kings County. No patient was turned away from the hospital no matter how sick or how destitute. I had chosen Kings County on the recommendation of a classmate who had started working there six months ahead of me. He said the hospital was a good place for training in most of the medical specialties.

The emergency room and hospital main entrance that the author passed through on arrival at the Kings County Hospital (Photo courtesy of Jose C. Pangan, Jr.)

The emergency room and hospital main entrance that the author passed through on arrival at the Kings County Hospital (Photo courtesy of Jose C. Pangan, Jr.)

I took a plane from Manila on December 26, 1960. My wife and many relatives were at the airport to see me off. My first stopover was Hong Kong where I stayed for two days and then Tokyo for another two days before finally proceeding to New York via Hawaii and San Francisco. I landed at Idlewild International Airport (now JFK International Airport) on December 31, in the afternoon.

I took a cab from the airport and asked the driver to take me to Kings County Hospital. I was excited to be in America. But it was a dreary, overcast day. Most of the trees were bereft of leaves and the grass was brown. It was not a day conducive to optimism. The taxi driver was nice enough, but he did not know where the Staff House was in the hospital compound, where I was supposed to go. So he dropped me off at the Emergency Room entrance, which was in the Main Building. That was a rude introduction to Kings County Hospital. The ER was a very busy place. Everyone was occupied, and there was hardly anyone who could help me get to the Staff House.

After some time, a nurse was finally able to direct me to the right building. On my way to the Staff House I looked at all the buildings I passed. At the Main Building where the ER was, I read an inscription on the wall that emphasized the commitment of Kings County Hospital to the care of the poor of New York City. I thought it was a nice touch.

It was a dreary, overcast day. Most of the trees were bereft of leaves and the grass was brown. It was not a day conducive to optimism.

When I reached the Staff House, I still did not know where to go. I ended up in a recreation room where a group of staff members were playing cards. They said,“hello,” but none of them offered to help me get oriented and settled in my assigned quarters. My friend who preceeded me by six months was busy at work so he couldn't help me.  I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to come to the US and Kings County Hospital. Fortunately another resident came and helped me get oriented to the building, and I finally got to my assigned room. After I unpacked my few belongings. I rested, to recover from my long trip and jet lag.


Later that day, my friend came to see me and he reassured me that almost everyone at Kings County was helpful and nice and that you learn a lot as a house officer at the hospital. He said,  "In a week you will be an old hand. You'll get so busy that you adjust to the routine almost immediately." He talked of the drudgery of interns' “scut work” but also of the excitement and the learning that one experiences only in a large inner city hospital. King's County then was a 1,200-bed facility.

My friend also told me that we were going out to Times Square that night to join in the celebration of the new year, which, then as now, was highlighted by the dropping of a large, lighted ball from a tall building at midnight. We were going with another friend, who was interning at Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan, and a Jesuit priest, who had previously worked for many years at a Jesuit school in the Philippines and was a chaplain at the hospital.

A recent picture of Kings County Hospital Center

A recent picture of Kings County Hospital Center

I protested that I could not go with them because it was too cold for me. But he would hear none of it. "Don't worry about the cold – you just dress warm and you will be all right," he said. He checked what clothes I had brought to wear for winter. I showed him my new thick wool suit, which I wore on my trip from Manila, a new wool overcoat I had bought in Hong Kong during my brief stay there, a hat and ear muffs. He said I would be all right with all those things to wear.

So we had supper at the Staff House dining room, and at around 10 o'clock the four of us left for Times Square, taking the subway to get there. Since it was my first time to ride the subway, I was intimidated by it. I wondered how long it would be before I could venture alone to ride the subway to Manhattan. After several stops, we got off at the Times Square station. Thousands of people were all over the streets and sidewalks. The crowd was in the mood for raucous celebration. Soon it seemed like we were moving without necessarily wanting to, as we were jostled and pushed along by the crowd. You just went with the flow, as they say nowadays. I could see why all the stores were protected from the crowd by barricades. Otherwise, some of their glass storefronts could have been damaged. I made sure that I never lost sight of my friends.

At first I kept my earmuffs in my pockets because I did not like the way I looked with them on. But pretty soon my ears began to feel numb so I hurriedly put the muffs on. The excitement of the crowd built as midnight approached. At 11:59 the lighted ball began its descent, and at exactly 12 midnight it reached the ground. Everyone was hollering and singing and wishing each other “Happy New Year!” and for several minutes the noise was almost deafening. The four of us wished each other Happy New year.

The dropping of the ball was almost anticlimactic for me. I had experienced so many new things before the event. I was not sure I was having fun since I was feeling so cold even with all the winter clothing I had on. Besides, I wasn't a drinker and I'm by nature not a boisterous individual. Anyway, I was just glad to be with friends who seemed to enjoy it all. Looking back on the experience many years later, I'm glad I experienced it, but I wouldn't want to repeat it. Now, when my wife says she wants to experience New Year at Times Square at least once, I tell her it's not worth it although I realize that is a selfish attitude.

When the celebration was winding down, the four of us started our return to Kings County Hospital. I don't remember precisely why we didn't take the subway home. I think it had to do with too many people trying to get on at the same time. Anyway, the Jesuit priest said we should go look for a cab and that if we walked quite a distance from Times Square, we would find one. Well, we walked and we walked for I don't know how long (in the meantime I was getting colder and colder every minute) before we were able to get a cab. I think we were already close to the Brooklyn Bridge before we got one.

We got back to Kings County Hospital very late and I was very tired. Despite all the new experiences, my homesickness and my anxieties about what was in store for me, I was able to sleep immediately. I woke up in the morning after a few hours of sleep and reported for work. 

Jose C. Pangan, Jr.

Jose C. Pangan, Jr.

Jose C. Pangan, Jr. stayed at Kings County Hospital from 1961 to 1967 when he completed his training in general surgery. He returned to the Philippines and practiced surgery in Manila and taught at UST (University of Santo Tomas) until 1972. He returned to America two months after the declaration of martial law and practiced surgery in Massachusetts from 1972 until 1998 when he retired. He still lives in Massachusetts.