The advertisement in the nursing journal said, “Deliver primary care to U.S. government employees working in embassies overseas.” That was enough to catch my attention! I was a 40-something single mother with a great nurse practitioner job in Biloxi, Mississippi, but I had a nagging suspicion that there was more to be had if I looked for it. Soon, I was going through the long and frustrating process of applying for the position of foreign-service health practitioner with the U.S. Department of State.
That was 10 years ago and, in subsequent years, I have enjoyed long assignments in Ghana, Guinea, Afghanistan and Pakistan with shorter tours to Mexico, Russia, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Rwanda, Kosovo and Honduras. I am assigned—with consideration of my preference—to a U.S. embassy community to deliver patient care in the medical unit, usually as the sole provider, but sometimes with a State Department physician. The patient load is the run-of-the-mill primary care stuff with some interesting twists along the way. Some are location-specific, such as parasites, malaria, or “acid” bug burns. Some are scary acute-care problems (MIs, cancers and orthopedic nightmares) that my clinic diagnoses, stabilizes—using local resources, when available—and transfers to a medevac center or to tertiary care in the United States.
It isn’t all direct patient care. I am responsible for testing embassy water quality, evaluating food sanitation practices of embassy kitchens, scrutinizing local public health issues that might affect our embassy population, emergency preparedness, health education of the embassy staff and a variety of issues that are in some way related to the health and well being of embassy personnel. It is never boring and I marvel at the range of knowledge I have acquired since taking this job.
The off-work possibilities are boundless. I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in Red Square, ridden horseback to Egypt’s Great Pyramids, climbed through a bamboo forest to photograph mountain gorillas and been a lazy bum on some of the most beautiful, and isolated, beaches in the world.
I’ve met amazing people at every location and learned that, no matter the region or the language, we are all more alike than we are different. I have also seen the poverty, lack of education and poor health care the majority of the world suffers. It devastates me, but I have been able to offer small assistance by volunteering at a children’s center or supporting a local hospice.
Of course, there are some negatives to this employment. While I have attended the major events in my grown children’s lives, such as weddings, I’ve missed just about all of the daily life events. Webcams and Skype phone calls help my seven grandsons remember my face and voice between visits home, but I miss not being with them more often. My youngest daughter traveled with me until 2003, when she returned to the United States for university. Now, I live and travel unaccompanied and sometimes feel out of touch with the U.S. culture, and my family and friends. Still, I know how truly fortunate I have been to reside and work in the world at-large. It isn’t for everyone but it has been a dream-come-true for me.
I recently completed a three-year assignment in Pakistan, an amazing experience. After returning to Washington, D.C. for two months of language training, I’ve now moved to my new assignment, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The past 10 years have taken me to mostly rough, medically underserved locations. For the next three years, I will be in the heart of Europe, and I wonder what that assignment will hold for me. In this blog, I will share my discoveries and adventures and reflect on past ones. I hope you’ll join me.
For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International