25 January 2010

Small miracle

The Western Hemisphere and most of Europe are gripped by the tragic events unfolding in Haiti. Modern media transports those of us who have televisions to the center of the misery and captures us with heartbreaking and touching stories.

I always considered myself a knowledgeable person, but it wasn’t until I joined the Foreign Service and traveled to the, shall we say, more unusual parts of the world, that I realized how little I really knew about life outside of my sphere. I understood American poverty and I understood the chasm that existed between those who have and those who don’t—in North America. After all, I grew up in south Texas and had visited our neighbors to the south many times. I thought I knew.

What I know now is that the events currently taking place in Haiti are occurring all over the world, on a smaller scale, daily. I don’t just mean earthquakes. I’m talking about desperate circumstances, poor nutrition, unsafe water, lack of shelter, and poor medical care. The World Health Organization estimates that one million African children die each year from malaria. That’s just one continent and one disease. To extrapolate is truly disturbing.

And while I now know, and have seen firsthand, some of the terrible conditions people survive, I have also seen small miracles occur, without international coverage or support, that make life better for these unfortunate people. I’ve already mentioned a few, but I want to tell you another.

When I worked in Conakry, Guinea, I was introduced to six nuns of the Missionary Sisters of Charity—the order started by Mother Teresa—who operated a clinic. I began assisting them in small ways. The clinic usually had a full load of 25 inpatients, mostly children 3 years and younger who had nutritional needs.

One day, I received a phone call asking me to come to the clinic to see a sick child but I was unprepared for what I found. A village woman had come to the clinic with a premature infant. She was the infant’s grandmother. The mother of the child needed to stay in the village with her other children. This baby weighed 1 kilogram. I had no experience with preemies and looking at this little boy was like looking at a tiny, skinny doll. I was afraid to touch him. In spite of his small size, he looked pretty good. He was alert, he was feeding well (breastfeeding mothers at the clinic were pitching in) and he had no respiratory problems. But he was only a few days old, and I couldn’t imagine he would survive. In a developed country, this child would be in the NICU for weeks with all sorts of advanced monitoring and treatments. This baby was in an open crib in a room full of sick children, with just a mosquito net between him and certain malaria. If he needed specialized care, it just wasn’t available. The clinic didn’t even have hot water.

I went to the clinic every other day and watched in amazement as this child survived, developed and eventually flourished. When he was 3 months old, he was a plump, smiling and cooing little boy, and his grandmother took him back to the village. I think of him often and wonder if his miracle continued. He would be 8 years old now. I hope he is.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

20 January 2010

Unpacking history

Today is moving-in day for me. I arrived in Prague in October but my HHE (household effects) were just delivered. I had a much smaller shipment that arrived from Islamabad in October, so I’ve been perfectly content living with what I have, and I have dreaded this day for several months now. I need to give you the background on the problem.

Allow me to introduce you to one of the oddities of Foreign Service life. We move—a lot! Our standard tours are one to three years, depending on the difficulty of the location. While our housing is provided, and almost always furnished, personal items, household goods, kitchenware, books, etc. move with us. Some posts are in areas where standard goods are difficult, if not downright impossible, to buy. If we are moving to one of those “hardship” posts, we are also granted a consumables allowance, which is an additional weight to use for products we will need while we are at that post and are not likely to find locally.

In 2001, I transferred to Conakry, Guinea in West Africa. Conakry is one of those “hardship” posts where a consumables allowance is essential. Guinea is a country incredibly rich in resources with a long-standing corrupt government that has kept the people in abject poverty. Fortunately, people don’t usually starve there because food grows abundantly, but the people are starved for everything else. As a result, goods and services are largely unavailable.

I was supposed to be in Conakry until 2004 and I brought with me ample goods to see me through. I’ve learned that I do quite well on local food, so most of my consumables are things such as paper products and cleaning supplies. One can really tell a lot about a person’s preferences from seeing what is chosen for consumables. Let your imagination be your guide: disposable diapers, wine and beer, ethnic foods, various canned goods, etc. For me, it is American paper products. They can’t be beat! If you have ever used non-American toilet paper, you know what I mean.

Unexpectedly, I was offered a move to Kabul, Afghanistan for the spring of 2003, more than a year before I was supposed to leave Guinea. I jumped at the opportunity and began the preparation of moving. But there was a catch. Housing in Kabul consisted of a 17-foot by 8-foot metal shipping container, and I was only allowed to ship 500 pounds of goods and bring two suitcases. So everything I had in Guinea that was non-perishable was put into storage for me by the Department of State.

My plan was to do the one-year tour in Kabul and then go to another regular post, but again I was offered my dream job—worldwide rover. My things stayed in storage for the second and third year while I worked temporarily in nine different locations, filling in staffing gaps. In fact, the things I had shipped to Kabul were now in storage, too, as I was down to two suitcases—period!

As providence would have it, for my next posting I chose Islamabad, again one of those limited-household-effects posts, and all I was able to move was the stored goods from Kabul. I stayed in that one-year post for three years! This brings me to today. This morning the belongings that have been stored since 2003 were delivered to my apartment.

I have been opening boxes all day, discarding things I wondered why I packed at all, trying to find a place in my limited storage space for other things I know I don’t need. I’m even getting nostalgic over a few items. When I opened a box filled with dinnerware my son gave me years ago, I choked up. And when I came across a couple of items that had belonged to my daughter, I sat down for a good cry. Perhaps nearly seven years of not having my real life with me was too long. I need reminders of my history to reassure me and help me remember who I really am and where I came from, not just things that chronicle where I’ve been.

Some of the boxes have been real surprises with contents I actually don’t remember at all. Several times today I have said, to no one present, “Where did this come from?” Fortunately, I like most of what I’ve found.

And then I came upon the consumables. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will tell you this. For the rest of my life, I will never again have to buy paper towels.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

08 January 2010

Culture shock

Culture shock is a well-known, expected phenomenon in the Foreign Service community. It doesn’t happen to every person with every transfer, and there are degrees of effect, but it is something we warn our patients about whenever they relocate. I am in culture shock.

There are phases to culture shock. The first is the honeymoon, where the new location is pleasing and exciting. Prague is certainly beautiful—amazingly beautiful—but the aspect of Prague that impressed me most in the weeks after I arrived was my ability to walk through the city and have no one pay attention to me. My last three years were in Islamabad, Pakistan. It was too dangerous to freely walk around the city and, in those few places we were allowed to go, a tall, gray-haired (head uncovered), fair-skinned woman walking about was always met with curiosity. Everyone stared! So, for the first six weeks in Prague, I walked for a couple of hours after work—more on the weekends—just because I could and no one would care. It was absolutely liberating.

The second phase of culture shock is negotiation. That's where I am. In this phase, the new living circumstances may cause frustration, anxiety and even anger over differences in language, cultural ethics and available food choices. This is a time of comparison between what was one’s life in contrast to what is one’s life and may lead to mood disturbance or even depression, in extreme cases.

Life in Pakistan was life on the edge, especially the last two years. Somehow, being in the middle of it conferred a sense of control. Now that I have moved on, I am beset by concern for those I left behind, especially my Pakistani friends who are less protected than the diplomatic residents. I feel helpless to do anything but worry, so I worry. I watch the news. I fret when a new incident happens. Recently, the Navy Yard gate in Islamabad was attacked and people were killed. The Navy Yard was one of my favorite places to shop and I felt safe there. In Prague, I feel safe everywhere. That is a very good thing, but now I also feel guilty for enjoying this safety and freedom in Prague when my former colleagues don’t share it.

The final phase is adjustment. When I get to that phase, life in Prague will feel normal to me and Pakistan will be a memory. It isn’t that I will lose my concern for my colleagues who remain in Islamabad, but I will accept that my focus is my life and work in the Czech Republic.

Foreign Service employees may also suffer reverse culture shock when they reenter the United States for a long visit or for a work tour. Returning to the U.S., especially from a country that is very different, can be mind-boggling.

Many years ago, I came home for the birth of my first grandson. I was living in Ghana at the time and, while it is a pleasant country and I enjoyed living there, food choices were quite limited. On my first day back in Mississippi, my daughter sent me to the grocery store with a list that included corn flakes. I stood in the aisle at Kroger looking at what seemed to be dozens of choices of corn flakes—different brands additives and sizes. I simply could not choose because I had grown accustomed to buying the one option available to me, if there was any available at all. Having so many choices was overwhelming! I was forced to call my daughter and request that she name a particular corn flakes item so I could continue shopping. And, yes, she thought I was completely wacky!

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

04 January 2010


It has been the holiday season in Prague and, as in most northern European cities, numerous small log-cabin-type buildings have been erected at most major plazas, and merchants have been selling crafts and Christmas goods. Originally, I thought this was the purpose of the markets, but I now know better. The real reason for the markets is to drink beer, grog and mulled wine and to eat pastries and sausage. The shopping is just for entertainment during eating and drinking rest breaks.

Recently, I visited an interesting specialty hospital in Prague. This hospital specializes in adult cardiac, neurosurgical and planned abdominal, vascular, orthopedic and GYN surgery. They have no conventional emergency department and they don’t accept trauma cases. The hospital is also heavily involved in surgical research.

My intent was to quickly view the outpatient diagnostic departments and perhaps see a med/surg floor, but the executive office, which had advance notice of my visit, arranged a presentation in the cardiac catheterization lab. Specifically, I was ushered into the electrophysiology lab, where a patient was undergoing right-atrial mapping for prospective ablation therapy.

I had atrial ablation in 2005, so I was interested in comparing the facility in Prague with the U.S. facility that treated me. The Prague lab is super high-tech with robotics and a magnetic catheter-guidance system that has just become available in the United States. I do believe my electrophysiologist in Memphis would be drooling over this lab set up.

The opposite end of this scale would be the National Cardiothoracic Centre in Accra, Ghana. It was my privilege to meet the founder of this, the first cardiac surgery program in all of West Africa, while I was posted to Ghana. Frimpong Boateng, MD, left his native Ghana in the 1970s to study surgery in Germany. After 10 years abroad, he returned to his home country to offer life-saving cardiac surgery where there had been none and, in 1989, with considerable support from members of the German medical establishment, opened the National Cardiothoracic Centre in Accra. For 20 years, he has struggled to keep his life’s work moving forward and has survived insufficient facilities, a dearth of funding and even occasional loss of electrical backup during surgery. The center regularly accepts patients from neighboring countries and primarily repairs valvular and congenital heart disorders for persons who would have no options if the center didn’t exist.

I have not been to this hospital in many years but I am confident that Boateng and his group of dedicated colleagues continue to provide valuable health care under the most difficult of circumstances and without all the fancy bells and whistles I saw this week. Don’t misunderstand. I am as impressed by the potential of the high-tech interventions and the practitioners who advance our knowledge through research as I am by the surgeon who is saving lives under stringent circumstances. Ultimately, in both cases, the practice of medicine benefits and lives are bettered. I think we call this win-win.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.