Friday, January 1, 2010

One year on

This Sunday will mark a year since I have returned from Swaziland. I still think of that God-forsaken place every single day.
This year has been difficult for me on so many levels. I found myself crying when seeing African people walking down the streets with babies tied to their backs. I found it difficult to adjust to my new work places where the demands and expectations were so different to what they had been in the 6 months prior. I had trouble consolidating just what the experience meant for me and what role it would play in my future. There were many times when life just seemed so complex and complicated that I wanted to jump back on a plane and return to Swaziland where there was no television, no radio and where the simple act of dropping in on my neighbours was customary. I remember being delighted in the opportunity to take a car to Manzini or simply finding ingredients to making a good meal. I remember being with my friends who accepted me warts and all and would drop everything in a moments notice to spend time with me. I remember dancing to Motown music, laughing until I nearly wet my pants and dinner-time conversation that would have us laughing one minute and then crying the next.
And then I would remember all the dead people. I remembered the paralysing frustration I would feel when I would watch my patients suffer and there was little I could do. It was like hitting my head against a brick wall- every single day. I remembered little Noah and the fact that he represented all the little babies that died everyday. I remembered running out of medications, not having emesis bowls for my patients to vomit in and not having narcotics to ease their pain. It’s those memories that would occasionally keep me awake at night or randomly lead me to tears.

I was lucky enough to meet Judi in the first few months of my return. She’s a social worker who often counsels volunteers who return from missions with the Red Cross. Judi was able to “normalise” what I was feeling and was able to give me perspective and guidance on how to manage my myriad of emotions. I think she’s the smartest person I know and I am so grateful that she somehow managed to come into my life. One of the hardest things about returning from experiences like mine is that it can be terribly isolating. There are few people who truly understand what the experience was like and what it’s like to return. I have a friend, Ruth, who’s worked for the Red Cross in Sudan. We don’t talk often but I was struck by her comment that when you return from an overseas mission, you are surrounded by all your friends and family again but you just feel so damn lonely and I have to agree, the loneliness at times can be overwhelming. Since my return, I have devoured copious amounts of books written by people who have returned from similar situations and I have taken great comfort in knowing that my post-return emotions are very similar to others.

I have to admit, the blog did assist people to understand my experience in Swaziland. I am amazed by how many people followed it- literally people from all corners of the planet and even people I have never met.
Whilst I kept the blog, I also emailed friends whom I was particularly close to. One person that I was in contact with almost daily was a man who I had been sweet on for about 10 years. We shared mutual friends and a mutual career path and I had an enormous crush on him but it was unrequited and I never thought myself worthy enough of his attention. I had lunch with him the day before I left for Swaziland and then I was pleasantly surprised to hear from him during the time I was overseas. Our friendship certainly blossomed over email and I found myself confessing things to him that I wouldn’t put in the blog and his daily emails gave me the strength to carry on when things got really tough. He was the first person I saw when I got back to Australia and from there a lovely romance evolved. As I had mentioned previously in this blog, I was 30 and had not had a real relationship, so when all this developed, I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. In my mind, this man was my “reward” for all that I had gone through in Swaziland. I was happy and I was enjoying life. It all ended rather abruptly and unexpectedly 5 months later. I think he was more enamoured with the idea of “Swazi Mel” rather than the reality of “Aussie Mel”. Trouble is, they are the same person, it’s just that I was an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances and I was always going to appear more exciting, more confident and a little more special in Swaziland than I ever was when back at home. This time last year we were in daily contact and I was telling him my deepest thoughts, now, only one year later, he can’t even look me in the eye across a crowded conference room. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, there are still times when life simply doesn’t make sense. My heart still aches on a daily basis and I have to admit there is part of me that feels that someone will only think I’m special if I go and repeat what I did in Africa. This is difficult because going back will require a lot of sacrifice on my behalf and then I may just end up having my heart broken anyway.

I stayed with my parents for about 6 months and then I moved into my own apartment which I consider to be my ultimate sanctuary. I love it here and I live close to some friends who have been enormously supportive since I have been back. Nancy has been my rock here in Australia and I’m sure I would have been a lot more lonely and tormented if it had not been for her kindness and unconditional support. I’ve also been close to work and the commute time has been minimal. I have worked in two places since being back and although I have lost my passion for medicine I have been blessed to meet some incredible work colleagues who have really embraced me and made my life richer. They have been extraordinarily tolerant. I often find myself saying “You know, back in Swaziland…..” and they patiently listen as I rant and rave about the injustices that exist on our planet. This year, I recreated my Thanksgiving experience by having about 10 people over to celebrate. I cooked a turkey (not slaughtered that day…) and a variety of other dishes. I made Kristin’s unusual sweet potato dish and Courtney’s pumpkin pie and they both were a hit. Whilst the environment was largely different from Swaziland, the warmth and kindness in the room wasn’t that much different.

I have also been blessed to continue my friendship with Courtney. She’s my best friend in California whom I’ve known for 24 years . We email each other every day and I don’t know how I would have survived this year if it wasn’t for her friendship. She and her family came to visit me for the first time in August of this year and we enjoyed a whirlwind visit together. She is expecting her second child in February and I will go over to visit a couple of months later. She listens patiently as I ruminate on all my experiences in Swaziland and what has happened since getting back and she truly is a shining star in my life.

I was also lucky enough to spend time with my friend Anna (from Ireland). Anna, her partner Andrew and I spent some time up in Cairns, Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation earlier this year. Anna’s courage and determination in the face of adversity continues to be a source of inspiration for me.

I am also in regular contact with Kristin and Andrew (Peace Corp). They are still in Swaziland and will be there until July. They have accomplished amazing things during their time there. They are now living in a different place (without the dreaded latrine) and Kristin has been working closely with the Nursing School at Good Shepherd. She has been working on developing a new curriculum and has introduced computers to the school which has just revolutionised the learning process and invigorated their enthusiasm. The nurses idolise her and I am sure she has inspired them all and hopefully taught them something that will improve standards within the hospital. Andrew has been working tirelessly on improving community links/AIDS awareness and has helped establish a soccer tournament which seems to be a useful platform to open discussion between men on HIV etc. I know that they are going to be my friends forever and I cannot wait to see them again soon.

Julia (nurse who worked for Home Based Care) returned to New York State in November last year. She found it difficult to find employment so she took a road trip across the country with a friend who was going in search of employment. They ended up in New Mexico and Julia met Marcus. They are now living together in New Mexico and Julia is working in a coronary care unit. I’m not sure that she’s particularly happy with the job and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Julia suddenly packs her bags and heads back to the third world.

Jenny (medical student from Scotland) went back and finished her studies. She is now a fully fledged doctor. She got engaged soon after her return and will be marrying later in 2010. I’m hoping that I may get the opportunity to attend.

Susan (public health worker) has finished her time at Good Shepherd and is now back in the UK with her husband. She’s working on some public health project in England but again, I wouldn’t be surprised if she embarks on another African adventure soon.

Chris, from Cincinnati returned to the States and worked in a hospital on an Indian Reservation. She is returning to Good Shepherd in April and will volunteer 5 months of her time again- this will be her fourth mission the Swaziland. What an extraordinary person she is. She still manages to make me laugh- even via email.

You may remember Katharina and Frank- a German couple I had the privilege of spending time with during the early part of my stay in Swaziland. They both used to work for BMW and then Katharina quit her job as a nuclear physicist to take up medicine so that she could work in the third world. She’s near completion of her studies but here’s the exciting bit- Frank was so inspired by what he saw in Swaziland that he also has quit his job at BMW and now is working tirelessly to raise funds to build a hospital in the third world where Katharina will work once she is finished. They had plans to set up in Darjeeling but after a recent reconnaissance visit, they may choose somewhere else. Needless to say, they are keen for me to join in on their project and I am watching from afar as I know this couple are about to achieve incredible things and I may want to be a part of it.

Niel (paramedic from South Africa who I worked with at Swazi 1000) returned to Bulembu this year for another round of building houses for orphans. Again, they were remarkably successful and Bulembu continues to go from strength to strength. Niel is going to volunteer his services and expertise in 2010 and work full-time at the clinic we both worked at setting up last year. I know he will do an amazing job although I do admit to being a tiny bit jealous because I remember thinking that someday I would return to Bulembu as the community doctor!

I am in regular contact with Heather and Andy at Bulembu. I am lucky enough to receive updates and photos of all the orphans they care for. The group in their care whilst I was there have all moved on to the bigger household, but have been replaced by another group who are equally as cute. They do an amazing job and I’m pleased that my job here allows me to occasionally contribute financially to their good work.

So, where does this leave me? The truth is, I’m not sure. I mentioned earlier that I have lost a lot of my passion for medicine since coming back. I’m supposed to be sitting my specialist exams soon but the reality is, I’m completely uninspired to put the necessary hard work in. However, it only recently occurred to me that having my specialist exams over will put a few letters after my name and those letters could open a lot of doors for me. I have thought a great deal about what I should do with my life and if I had to describe what I would really like to do, it would be to divide my time between my extraordinarily blessed life here and a life where I’m working in some of the more poorer regions of the world. This is not easy to do but I have started to explore my options. If I was to sign up with MSF or Red Cross, it would mean that I would have to quit my job and lose income for the 6 months I was away. This works for some people but I’m not sure it suits me. However, I have recently found out that if I joined the Army Reserve, the army would pay my employer to get in a locum for the time I am away. I would only be deployed for acute disasters and probably only for about 3 months at a time. Whilst I never envisaged me working for the military, this may actually be a more suitable way of me satisfying both needs in my life. I have a burning desire to work internationally but I also love my country and the privilege and lifestyle it brings me. My friend Ruth has also imparted some wisdom to me, telling me not to rush things as there will always be poverty and need in the world.

So the year ahead will involve a lot of hard work and study as I prepare to sit my specialist exams. I will still keep a close eye on the situation in Swaziland as the place will never leave my heart. I suspect I will be back there someday soon. In the meantime I will focus on expanding my knowledge and nurturing my passion for humanity. Look out for the next blog “Stories from………( somewhere else)”