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)”
Friday, January 1, 2010
This Sunday will mark a year since I have returned from Swaziland. I still think of that God-forsaken place every single day.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 1:31 AM
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 1:24 AM
Thursday, January 22, 2009
All journeys must come to an end and this will be the last entry I make in "Stories from Swaziland".
I have now been back in Australia for almost 3 weeks and I am slowly adjusting to life back in this privileged country. I'm back working in an emergency department. The irony is that I'm working for 6 months in the private sector, so I am treating people who have every resource available to them and I don't have to think twice about ordering tests or prescribing drugs- their insurance will cover everything. No one has HIV and no-one has TB. My working environment is relaxed, pleasant and stress-free. I am surrounded by support and I feel nurtured and appreciated. Yet, if I had to be truly honest, I actually miss some of the mayhem I faced in Swaziland. I miss my patients who were so grateful for the smallest things. There were times where all I could offer was a hug and a smile and somehow that was often enough. I miss my nurses who drove me crazy most of the time but had hearts of gold and treated me with an almost "God-like" status. I miss walking into town and having everyone I pass smile at me and greet me warmly. I miss my friends terribly. I think of Kristin, Andrew and Susan everyday and often wonder what they are doing. I am in regular email contact with them and the other day, Kristin emailed me to tell me of some of the projects they have done recently and I actually yearned to be a part of it. They are doing amazing things in terms of educating their community about HIV/AIDS. Kristin has started giving lectures at the nursing school and I know she will inspire the nursing students and encourage them to learn more. I am so incredibly proud of them. Susan still faces the endless bureaucratic nightmare of trying to co-ordinate care for those suffering HIV and TB and I hope that she knows that I am supporting her in spirit whilst not being there in person. Julia and Chris are settling back into their lives in the States (with their gorgeous new President). Jenny (Scottish medical student) has just finished her medical exams and will start her first year as a doctor.
I was walking through a shopping centre the other day and I saw two young African children. I had to stop myself from going up to them and giving them a warm embrace. In Swaziland, the children would have instinctively run up to me for a cuddle, but here in Australia, children are taught to not be so trusting. I am still in regular contact with my friends at Bulembu and I am sent regular updates on all the children as well as photos to add to my rapidly expanding collection. Sometimes, during my more quiet moments, I think about all those orphans and wonder what lies ahead of them. I still cry randomly and my heart often aches for inexplicable reasons.
That being said, I have adjusted quite well and I'm not sure I've ever felt this happy, nor this comfortable within my own skin. I have this new-found confidence in myself that allows me to think that anything is possible and that nothing is too hard. I appreciate things now that before I have taken for granted. I am able to see beauty in the mundane and I am able to treasure things that others may see as unimportant. This is a true gift that only the heartache of being in Swaziland was able to give me.
People ask me whether I will go back and the truth is, the answer is yes- just not yet. I can't imagine going through the rest of my life without being able to touch lives the way I was able to in Swaziland. It was the hardest experience of my life so far, but that doesn't mean I will shy away from such difficult experiences again. I actually think I will be back in Swaziland sooner than I think. I have some special friends there and although it may mean using the dreaded latrine again, I think my Peace Corp friends will have a visitor sooner rather than later.
I cannot finish this story without thanking some incredibly special people in my life. Many of you sent me warm wishes, support and love in various forms, but there are a few people who deserve special mention:
Courtney- by best friend in the whole entire world. She set me up with the blog and made various adustments to it upon my request. She emailed me every single day I was in Swaziland and her regular contact provided me with comfort that is simply indescribable and will not be forgotten. I think some of my "adventures" caused her quite a bit of angst at times and she has asked me to never embark on this type of thing again, but the amazing thing about Courtney is that her support is unwavering and no doubt will continue on the next crazy mission I undertake.
Mum, Graeme, Dad and Rachel- thank you for encouraging me to step outside of my comfort zone and refusing to let me give up. Thank you for still seeing the special side of me despite the fact I am incredibly "different" to every other 30 year old you know! Graeme- thank you for the 200 tea bags, 6 kilos of coffee and 3 litres of hand sanitiser that you went to such effort to send me. I never got around to using it all, but rest assure, there are many others who are still appreciating your efforts!
Anna from Ireland- despite your own difficulties, you were still able to empathise and encourage. It certainly was fate that brought us together again and I will never forget the support you showed me.
My friend Adam- you patiently listened as I described in graphic detail my various changes in bowel habit, my fears that my skin was infested with bugs and the ailments of my patients that were never quite appropriate to talk about on the blog. Somehow, you just knew the right things to say to settle my hysteria and you gave me a laugh when I needed it most.
All my friends from PA Hospital- I know it still seems bizarre that I had the courage to go to Swaziland, but rest assure I'm a lot stronger for it. Dr Mel has "toughened up"! I still have a propensity for tears, but there are some things you just can't change! Your donations and support mean that you're not just my work colleagues- you're also my friends.
To Kristin, Andrew, Susan, Julia and Chris- words will never be enough to describe how much I love you and how much you affected my life. I will never forget the laughter and tears we shared. I tried to share my experiences on my blog, but only you will be able to truly appreciate my experience of a lifetime.
To everyone who read my blog- those I know and those I don't- the blog was more for me rather than anyone else. As I sat and wrote of my experiences, I never felt alone and somehow sharing the heartache, telling people about this forgotten country and describing my adventures helped eased the enormous sadness I felt at times.
To the people of Swaziland- you have changed my life forever. When the rest of the world ignores your tears, I will not forget you. When you feel pain, I will feel it too. Where you have a glimmer of hope, I will encourage you. You are not alone- my thoughts will always be with you.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 2:24 AM
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Everything is so familiar and yet I still feel somewhat of a stranger in my own home, my own state, my own country.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 3:06 AM
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Our last day in Africa was a memorable one- for many different reasons.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 11:05 AM
Thursday, January 1, 2009
I'd like to say that I lived the high life when I celebrated New Years in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, I'm not one for big celebrations and I was in bed by 9.30pm.
We left Cape Town and arrived at Jo'Burg airport to be met by a tour group leader who took us out to a fabulous elephant sanctuary, just outside the city. It was a wonderful experience getting up close to the animals, feeling their leathery skin and muscular trunk. They were so docile and gentle despite being enormous in size. They were rescued elephants who are being rehabilitated and the sanctuary is doing amazing work.
We came back to our hotel and we had high hopes of having a nice dinner to see in the New Year. Unfortunately, the restaurants nearby were all closed and we were left with the prospect of having a very subdued New Years. This did not bother me in the slighest, but it bothered my sister Rachel. There was no way she was going to sit in a hotel room, so she madly searched the internet trying to find somewhere to celebrate. She found a very large casino nearby and decided that we should take our chances by just turning up to see if any of the restaurants had a table. After the previous nights episode of tears, I knew that going to a large place, with large crowds and unpredictable plans was definitely not a good option for me so I told them I was staying behind. I think this upset my Mum somewhat, but I was defiant and they ended up going without me. I had a vegetable soup from room service, read my book and feel asleep long before midnight. I know many of you will think this a rather depressing way to celebrate New Years in a big city, but it was how I wanted to spend my time. I'm not the girl I used to be and it's going to take some time before I can get into the social scene again (was I ever really on the social scene??)
This morning we did a guided tour of Soweto. I have recently finished Nelson Mandela's "A long Walk to Freedom" so my memory was fresh with the stories of apartheid and the ANC etc. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with the experience. Nelson's house was boarded up as it is being converted into a museum and I couldn't see Desmond Tutu's house as it was behind a large cement wall. The surrounding houses were certainly not flash, but certainly did not display the poverty that was typical of Swaziland.
In the afternoon, Mum, Graeme and Rachel went to a lion park whilst I joined my friend Niel. You may remember that Niel was the paramedic I "worked" with in Bulembu during my volunteer time there. He offered to take me out on an ambulance shift and I jumped at the opportunity to have a first hand experience at treating patients in one of the world's biggest trauma cities.
It certainly was fascinating and I will elaborate more to my emergency medicine colleagues when I get home, but for those of you who are interested, let me just say, it was an eye opener.
For our first call out, we were going to a patient who had been the recipient of "mob justice". This is where the local community decides to take the law into their own hands and issue their own form of punishment. This patient had being stabbed to the head and douced in petrol. We arrived before he was set alight. Getting to the scene was an adventure in itself. At one stage, we were travelling at 180km/hr and I was terrified. I thought I would be returning to Australia in a coffin. Apparently there are other ambulance drivers that travel at speeds of up to 200km/hr and I was grateful that we were taking things "safely". The patient was fine (we had police and fire department as an escort into the community as apparently the people can become violent against the paramedics). He kept commenting that he thought "the white girl was really pretty" (ie. me), but he was soon speechless when Niel told him sternly (in Zulu) that if he made any moves, he'd cut his testicles off. I was touched to be so well looked after....
We were on our way to a second case when I looked at an overpass above the freeway and saw a man hanging over the side. He was attempting suicide and we stopped to see what we could do. As we were running to the scene, Niel asked me "Mel have you ever talked anyone down from a situation like this?". The answer, "Never" and I had no idea what I would say when I got up there. Thankfully, two local men had reached over the side and brought the man up for us. We soon found out that last night, the patient's parents had both been murdered in an armed robbery. They owned a butchery that was randomly targeted last night. After a very long discussion, we handed the man over to mental health services and went on to our next call.
This time it was a major car accident. A combi carry 18 passengers and being driven by a 17 year old unlicensed driver had rolled and there were 18 casualties. I had absolutely no intention of doing an medical work, I was purely there to observe, but when I saw so many casualities, I got involved. I treated the driver who had significant burns and lacerations as well as a closed head injury. I rode in the back of the ambulance to the hospital with him. The ambulance was not equipped at all to deal with paramedics and there was no where for me to sit. We were travelling at ridiculous speeds and being thrown around the cabin. In the meantime, Niel and I were trying to get IV access, using sharps on a patient who may have had HIV. I had blood all over my hands and arms and I have to say, for the first time since I have been in Africa, I started to feel nervous. We made it to the hospital without event and I arrived to what Niel described as the "Baghdad of Johanessburg". It really was madness and I have no idea how the poor people of this country survive any trauma. There was no resuscitation team, in fact, no doctor and the nurse didn't seem too interested at all. Other patients were alongside us, unconscious, unstable and still waiting to see a doctor. My immediate instinct was to just jump in and start treating, but I realised I was unregistered and unable to provide any assistance (legally). It was all so surreal. For a country that appears to be a first world country, it certainly does not offer a first world health service. We also saw other stabbing injuries, but nothing too exciting to write about.
Tonight, Niel, his girlfriend and I join my family for dinner and now we are about to go to bed for my last night in Africa. We are spending tomorrow at a Cheetah park before we fly out in the evening. Can you believe my adventure has ended so quickly? My next entry should be from the comfort of my parents home in Australia.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 12:49 PM
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Dear "H" (Found in comments section of blog and worked in Swaziland for 3 years)
Thank you so much for your incredibly kind, insightful comments. It means a lot to me that you took the time to leave me a few "words of wisdom".
I don't know you, but you are obviously a humanitarian whose random act of kindness has warmed my heart and also created a few more tears in my eyes.
Posted by Stories from Swaziland at 12:55 PM