July 29 2018

I’m a stranger here myself

What the actual F*ck am I doing here?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, sometimes hourly, and occasionally every few minutes.

I have been in Rwanda just under two months and have spent all that time save one week in our training village of Rwamagana learning Kinyarwanda and how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, because as of now, I am still NOT a Peace Corps Volunteer, merely a lowly Peace Corps Trainee.  The one week not spent in Rwamagana was spent visiting my site aka the place where I’ll be living throughout my two years of service, and let me tell you, during that week I asked myself the above question about 100 times.

What the actual f*ck am I doing here?  Where the h*ll am I?  Why isn’t there any food?  How can I get the f*ck out of here? Why am I headed to yet another bar when I’ve told this person I don’t drink?  Is it too late to go back to work at my [nice] job in America?  The one with awesome co-workers? Or my house with my [oh-so-comfy] bed? Or my kitty cats? Why did I think becoming a Peace Corps volunteer was a good idea anyway?

Before applying to the Peace Corps in 2016, it was something I considered while I was in high school.  And then again after college. It was part of the reason I studied foreign languages in college.  But as LIFE tends to do, it got in the way and I saw my immediate post-college years running away from a bad relationship [quite literally as I  years 22 and 23 on the run in Mexico–and Belize–and Guatemala–and El Salvador…you get the drift] and then running towards a career [any career]. 24 would have been the perfect time for me to join the Peace Corps. I was mostly unencumbered by responsibilities. I was nearly fluent in Spanish. I’d spent much of the last year and a half teaching English as as Second Language in various places to various groups of people.  Aside from the political aspect [and while PC claims to be apolitical an overwhelming majority of PCVs lean democratic], at 24 I was a Peace Corps’ poster child–a person with just enough life experience to still see the good in everyone and still want to save the world. I was a person unsure of my life and career goals. I was exactly the type of person that the Peace Corps seems to attract.

At this stage of my life, my 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I am about as apolitical as they come, and I while I have a career as a nurse, no one in their right mind would call me a professional do-gooder.  I am as sure of my career and life goals as one can be when FATE is involved.

 So what am I doing here and why I am I doing this exactly?

Well, it took me a long while to work that out.

I’ve written about that a couple of times already, but even though there are several contributing factors, at my core, I want to help people. And yes, I could ‘help people’ without putting my life on hold, and moving 7800 miles and three continents away, but where’s the adventure in that? To date, I have traveled in 54 countries [although none in Africa until now], but never really lived in one area other than the upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than four months [except that one time, I moved to North Carolina, but my LIFE was still firmly ensconced in South Carolina.] My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are, and yes, at the end, I hope to get something tangible in exchange for my service.

My site seems to already know about permagarden techniques

Where is here? And Rwanda?

Well, it wasn’t my first choice.

But when was the last time you met anyone who has been to Sub-Sahara Africa, let alone lived there.  I know a few people who have visited a handful of countries, mostly in East/Southern Africa, but on the whole, not many people I know even consider Africa [as if it is one country instead of one rather large continent consisting of 54* individual countries] as a vacation destination.  And Rwanda?  If not for this Peace Corps opportunity, I can almost guarantee than I would have never set foot in the country. And I like to consider my self a traveler and not a tourist, and in my mind that means doing my best to experience the great touristy parts of the world, as well as the places that are off the grid.  And in 2018, Rwanda is still off most people’s grid.

“I want to help people.”

And I really do want to help people. I’ve worked in healthcare for most of my adult life.  If I didn’t truly want to ‘help people’ there are a lot of other, less strenuous, less soul-draining professions out there where I could probably make more money, have a better life-work balance, and certainly not spend all hours of the night awake.

But American healthcare is complicated. The overwhelming majority of my co-workers want to ‘help people’,  yet we often know that whatever we do–whether it’s a life-saving measure in the Emergency Department or Continued Care in a Rehabilitation Department–it’s a stop-gap procedure.  Yes, SOME people do GET IT.  Some people see it the catalyst needed to do massive behaviour change, but for the most part, Americans are repeat offenders in the health care system, and generally speaking look to blame their problems on others.

Now I’ll get my chance to work with patients who really want and need help.  Of course, creating behavior change is still going to be hard.

Third Goal

The Peace Corps, as one of their central missions for each volunteer, encourages each person to share their story with people in America. A blog or Instagram account is an easy way to do that, but also writing for the local paper or sharing my story via local meetings would accomplish this goal.  In addition to writing about my experiences in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll be doing a presentation in at least one elementary school classroom during my service.

Forth Goal

Ok so there is no official 4th goal, but for me, joining Peace Corps’ is a way to slow down in inevitability of life.  People say the older you get, the more time flies, and at this stage of life, I’m starting to see that.  The pressure to settle down, get married, have a career is intense.  Momentum is carrying me along and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing habits and behaviors than moving to a remote Rwandan village e for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here
March 25 2018

11 weeks to go

In the time between now and June 4, I’ll be posting some of my favorite past adventures because they’ll be much more exciting that another omg…it’s getting closer post.  Also it will help to remind me of my adventurous self, and that I have been through some amazing life experiences [good and bad], and I’ve done some pretty amazing things in life so far.  Peace Corps isn’t always fun and games; sometimes it’s damn hard work.  It will help me to remind myself that I’ve taken on challenges before and I have succeeded.

March 18 2018

Answering the basic questions

Every aspiring journalist knows what the five W’s are–it’s essentially a how to for writing. Who, What, When , Where, and Why.  If you can answer all those questions, then you’ve got an effective story. So let’s begin, shall we?

 

WHO

I’m Michelle and until the end of May, I’ll be hanging out a my little house on the prairie in South Carolina.  I’m a RN and will be working right up until I leave.  I’m always up for an adventure.

WHAT

I’ve accepted a position at a Maternal-Child Health in Rwanda with the Peace Corps. The official Peace Corps job description reads like this:

[This is the one for Guatemala; I’d suspect Rwanda is essentially the same.]

Maternal and Child Health Volunteers collaborate with health clinics, community organizations, and family members to promote healthier lives for mothers and children. Volunteers are assigned to health clinics in the most rural and needy communities where many children suffer from chronic malnutrition. You will help improve the training system of public health clinics to deliver high quality training to women, community members, and midwives to deepen their understanding of maternal, neonatal, and child health topics. All work done within the project will have a focus on behavior change, community empowerment, and sustainability.

Volunteers train health workers in adult education methodologies, behavior change theory, motivational interviewing, lesson planning, and overall development of educational resources. These actions will enhance health workers’ abilities to deliver high quality education. Having trained health workers and developed educational resources, Volunteers will co-plan and co-facilitate educational activities with household and community members, especially with women who are of reproductive age.

Volunteers with also work with the community at large, as community organization and empowerment is key to promoting community health. Volunteers and community members will engage in campaigns, activities, and projects to address community health needs. Methods include raising awareness around health issues, providing training on community project design and management, implementing educational projects, and implementing structural projects such as latrines, improved cook stoves, or vegetable gardens.

WHEN

Technically, the journey begins on June 04, 2018. I will serve for 27 months, returning home [if all goes according to plan August 2020!] In all reality, the journey began September 2016 when I first applied. Since then, through the rounds of interviews, incredible amount of paperwork, and frequent doctor visits, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  [I’m still not getting my hopes up too much because my last opportunity fell through]

WHERE

Rwanda

Rwanda is a small country, technically in East Africa, but being land-locked, seems more central Africa to me.  It borders Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi. It’s mountainous; not as mountainous as Lesotho, but still not many places are.  As a result of the altitude, despite being practically on the equator, the climate is much more temperate.  It occasionally snows there. Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts and is one of the more densely populated countries in Africa [1211 people/sq mile as compared to my current situation of about 150 people/ sq mile].  I’m about to get a whole lot of curious neighbors.

WHY

This is a complicated answer. Why am I  completely flipping my world upside down and exchanging a comfortable life for Rwanda? Honestly, the simple answer is because I can. The more complicated [much, much more complicated] answer, I’ll discuss later.

March 7 2010

Reality

An older post, from my private journal about my very first day night on the job right before I moved to Durham, NC for my ‘first’ adult job.   5 year ago.  Also, it was the last time I did something ‘crazy, and unexpected’.  Somehow, that was considered ‘responsible’ while taking some time off to explore seems ‘careless’.  I’ve done a bit more research and decided that I am going to try to visit all 13 countries on the South American continent.  I’ve been in touch with some volunteer outfits that will allow me to stay for free if I agree to work a certain amount of time each day. Win-win.  My current plan–if you can call it that–is to arrive in Caracas, skedaddle on over to Colombia as quickly as possible, follow my way down the Pacific coast all the way down to the Beagle Channel, scoot back up the Atlantic coast, and hit the interior where it makes sense. I’ve currently got applications for a Bolivian and Brazilian visas in the works and for the rest of it, I’ll figure out things as I go along.  I leave in 2 months; let’s get packing.

 


Reality is the first night on the job, and you are the only RT in the building. This is better than reality TV

I have had a license to practice respiratory care in South Carolina for a whopping 8 days, and here I sit, at the hospital on a Saturday night, working.  I am the only respiratory therapist in the building.  God help us all if there in an EMERGENCY tonight. I am working with my favorite hospitalist, so that helps.

anmed-photo
one of the best thing about peds–getting to wear Oscar the Grouch to work

You know, I have never moved. I’ve done a lot of shuffling back and forth between here and there, but I have spent my entire life essentially within a 50 mile radius. (You know, other than when I lived in Mexico or spent the summer in UK) I am beyond nervous, somewhat excited, and generally hopeful that I haven’t committed a major fuck-up. My biggest fear is that I won’t be good enough or smart enough to handle taking care of actual sick people.

Here’s the thing… even though I worked at Hillcrest almost the entire time I was in school, spent time in ER and ICU, I can still count on my fingers the number of bona-fide emergencies I’ve been involved in because Hillcrest is a place for the not-well or those recovering from surgery.  It is not a place for the actually dying or people in actual emergencies.  There just not the equipment or sheer number of people needed to participated in a real life-or-death situation.

And I am going to work in a hospital with a Level 1 trauma center, a level 3 NICU, and very large PICU, and while I don’t know where I’ll eventually end up, I chose, I chose, PICU, NICU, and ER as my top 3 choices of where I’d like to work.

The reality of what I’ve done is starting to set in.  I’ve packed up a month’s worth of clothes, a few books, my laptop, a sleeping bag, my kick-ass stereo that goes with me everywhere, and a sense of adventure. In the morning, after working a 12-hour shift, I’m moving to Durham, North Carolina where for a least the next year, I’ll be participating in a pilot residency program for newly graduated respiratory therapists.  I’ve left Shadow, Spot, all my friends, and all the bad memories of the last few months behind.

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And later that day…after driving 272 miles, crashing for a few hours in my sleeping bag in a hammock on the screened-in porch, and unpacking my paltry amount of possessions…

I’m living in a roughly 8 x 15 cement cinder block room in the basement of a rather large house. It’s double the size of a jail cell, slightly smaller than a dorm room. I have a minuscule closet, a wall full of wooden built-ins, and an old parquet floor.  It looks like a hallway and furniture arrangement is going to take some, um, creativity.  Lighting is awful; I have those old, tube fluorescent lights, and the tiniest of windows which I can’t even open.  My guess is that it’s not a ‘legal’ bedroom, but whatevs, it’s cheap, and close to the hospital where I’ll be working.

The bathroom beside my room has clearly seen better days. It has a stand-up shower, a pedestal sink, and a toilet. The minimum. Rent is $282.50/month… which hopefully after a month or so of settling in, I can begin to save up money, pay off student loans, and finally take a vacation. I don’t even have a bed yet.  I report to work at promptly 8:30am.  It’s too late to turn back now. This is my new reality, and reality is highly overrated.