Thanks to JiaoJiao Shen from KSHB for taking the time to discuss the Global Health Service Partnership with me earlier this month. It was truly a pleasure chatting with her, and I'm glad others are taking an interest in what the Peace Corps and Seed Global Health will be doing to address some of the healthcare workforce shortages overseas.
Each of us may fall as a single drop, but together, we can create a river.
Day one is in the books. I'm sitting here in D.C. with my roommate Matt, an incredibly chill pediatric trauma nurse from Denver, and can say without question that this has been quite the first day. The morning and afternoon were spent just down the street at Peace Corps Headquarters, where there were many new hands to shake and different names to learn.
If first impressions are supposed to mean anything, consider me impressed. This is such a wonderful group of individuals, and I feel very honored to be in their company. The staff from Peace Corps and Seed Global Health were all very welcoming and organized, which was a reassuring sight to witness en route to somewhere halfway around the globe. Everyone was kind, knowledgeable, and clearly committed to improving global health.
Sadly, Vanessa Kerry - who has put so much time and effort into this initiative - was unable to be in attendance this morning due to a family medical emergency. Hopefully she'll be able to rejoin us later in the week, as none of this would have been possible without her dedication and hard work.
A definite highlight for me was meeting all of the other Global Health Service Partnership volunteers. There are 11 of us headed to Malawi, 11 headed to Uganda, and 9 headed to Tanzania. All doctors and nurses, we come from many different backgrounds. There are several internists, a cardiologist, a family medicine doc, a few OBGYNs and pediatricians, an anesthesiologist, a number of nurses, and of course me as the lone psychiatrist in the group.
Some of us are in the early stages of our careers, while others are in more twilight phases. There are fewer mid-career types among our number. That said, everyone seems to get along fabulously so far. Matt and I were talking a few minutes ago, and he commented that it feels like we've been here much longer than a single day, as everyone has already started to get a fairly good sense of one another. I agree completely with this sentiment, as it feels like I've known some people here for ages (even though we just met this morning). It's a pleasure to be among so many kindred souls.
I'm definitely excited for the coming days, weeks, and months ahead.
The alarm clock on my phone is incessant: it's time to wake up, it's time to go, it's time to wake up, it's time to go. I roll off the couch, patting the dog on the head as I stumble to the kitchen.
I stayed up late last night, packing and then repacking all of my bags. After deciding that "less was more," I cut down significantly on the number of tomes I had planned to carry with me. Thank goodness for tablet versions of textbooks! I also left behind my melodica (so my "Mary had a Little Lamb" jam sessions will have to wait until next year).
It's hard to know what to pack for a year-long around-the-world trip. I tried to stick with the essentials: a couple pairs of pants, a few dress shirts, some t-shirts, shorts, socks, undies, shoes, and a toothbrush. I've made the shift from employing an electric razor to using a double-edged safety razor, as the electric current in Malawi wasn't compatible with any of my electric bathroom appliances. I've got a few medical supplies, toiletries, a camera, a laptop, a kindle, a head torch, a sleeping bag, a small blanket, and some miscellaneous paperwork. On the one hand, it feels like entirely too much. On the other, nowhere near enough.
Hopping in my dad's truck, we make our way to the airport, leaving around 7:30 a.m. on a muggy Missouri morning. We stop at a big box store on the way there to grab a canvas laundry bag. I've decided this is the easiest way to protect my hiking backpack's straps from the jaws of any menacing conveyor belts it may pass over.
I say goodbye to my parents outside the airport entrance, shaking their hands and watching their vehicle disappear around a bend in the road. I'm thankful for the hospitality they've shown me over the past few days.
My first obstacle is encountered after checking my luggage. I'm pulled aside for additional screening measures by the TSA, getting a full pat-down and a rifled-through bag. Oh, the joys of flying.
I can't dwell on this inconvenience very long, however, as I find myself on an overbooked flight, and being in the right place at the right time, score a travel voucher by giving up my seat for a later flight. Call me a sell-out if you will: I'll take an extra pat-down for easy cash.
I keep my fingers crossed that my bags won't disappear into the ether, settling into my chair for an extra couple hours in the Midwest. The airport Muzak reminds me of the soundtrack to a daytime soap opera.
Eventually, I make my way onto a plane bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, where I connect onward to Dulles International Airport. Seated next to me on this flight is a very nice young man from the Middle East. Although his English is broken, he offers me some Pringles in a kind gesture.
After sitting on the tarmac for an hour or so while waiting out heavy rains passing along the eastern seaboard, our plane eventually transports us safely to just outside the nation's capital. Thankfully, my bags are waiting for me at my destination. Jumping aboard a city bus, I cross the urban landscape, arriving at my hotel just as the sun is setting behind summer storm clouds.
I have safely completed the first leg of my journey, and tomorrow, orientation will begin!
One of the challenges of service in the Peace Corps is going through the medical clearance process prior to departure. Medical staff must ensure that each volunteer headed overseas is generally healthy, as access to medical services in other parts of the world may be much more limited.
For me, this process began last fall, when I filled out a long questionnaire detailing the entirety of my medical history. Thankfully, I haven't started falling apart yet, so this step was relatively easy: I just checked the box next to "needs glasses."
After being selected for a position in the GHSP last winter, I received a number of additional tasks through the Peace Corps' Office of Medical Services that had to then be completed. If I've neglected writing here recently, that's partly the result of being busy with these efforts (among other things) over the past few months.
Luckily, I documented some of my experiences along the way:
I'm not used to being on this side of the examining table. I visited two excellent doctors who completed my medical evaluation, conducted thorough physical exams, and ordered all of the necessary blood work and vaccinations required by the Peace Corps.
Ouch! Things started with some basic labs: HIV, CBC, Hep B surface Ag, Hep C Ab, G6PD titer, BMP, and UA. All of my results were normal, but it was still kind of a kick seeing my own numbers after looking at others' lab values for 11 years or so.
Next came the vaccinations: meningococcal, Tdap, and typhoid for starters. I received a 3-part series of Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B vaccines over the next month. This was followed by a trip to the local travel medicine clinic, where I received a polio vaccine, a yellow fever vaccine, and three rabies vaccines over the next several weeks.
Public service announcement: kids, shots really don't hurt that much. I'm just being dramatic in the hopes of securing some ice cream.
Off to the dentist! This was the part of the medical clearance process I was most nervous about, as I've been terrible about getting regular dental care over the past 15 years or so. Would brushing and flossing have been enough to prevent any cavities?
Nope. Looks like I have four.
My dentist dressed me in these Neo-like shades in preparation for some fillings. The bib around my neck takes away some of the cool factor.
While I've been known to offer the occasional smirk, here I'm simply modeling my stroke-like smile after half my face has been anesthetized. Thanks to my fantastic dentist, my choppers are officially as good as new. I'd say that's reason enough to grin.
One final "eye-opening" experience to go: the vision screening exam. Walking around Chicago after getting my eyes dilated was trippy.
Trying on spectacles...
I submitted all of my medical paperwork in May and learned about a month later that I had been medically cleared for service. Mustache photo included at no extra charge.
I received a bunch of forms from the Peace Corps in the mail two days ago. They’re sitting in front of me on the desk, waiting to be filled out. Black ink only, please. Can we use your photo in promotional materials? Check. Do you want us to notify anybody if you contract a flesh-eating virus? Check. Who gets some small sum of money should you get crushed underneath an elephant’s foot? Check.
Next comes the paperwork for a new passport and a background check. Guess that means I’ll need a couple of tiny photographs. Even better, it looks like I’ll need to be fingerprinted. Maybe I should commit a crime for a free set down at the station.
Deciding against this option, I set out on my first mini-adventure of Peace Corps service, looking for a place that’ll roll my digits in ink. Just so happens there’s such a place a few blocks away from where I live. Taking off a bit early from work, I make it there 20 minutes before they close. A Fingerprinting U S Photo is the name of the business, and it’s there I meet two very nice men who are more than happy to help me with my bureaucratic needs.
Having never been booked on any criminal offenses, I can't recall having my prints lifted before. I suppose I might have had it done at some point in medical school or residency, but if so, the memory of such an event has slipped entirely from my mind. It's a somewhat alien experience, having a person I've just met manipulate my hand on an ink pad before deftly maneuvering my darkly stained fingers onto a couple of official-looking forms. All the while, this older gentleman speaks to me of his experiences as a boy growing up in the south of India. I nod along to his soft voice, straining my ear to pick up each of his thickly accented words, finding myself unwittingly agreeing with his lamentations that children these days have had it too easy ever since the rod was removed as a deterrent in the classroom.
The shop owner is a jovial fellow who takes over after I've finished having my fingerprints taken. I'm in the midst of filling out a form when he shouts across the shop in my direction. I look up to see him holding a cordless phone against his ear, and again he says something about Lincoln. I have a couple of seconds of confusion before I realize he is speaking to me, telling me that I remind him of his favorite president. He beckons me to follow him and proceeds to show me a picture of the Illinois statesman hanging in a back room, all the while carrying on a conversation with someone else on the phone. A 65-year-old balding, slightly portly man, he makes a genuine effort to take a good photograph of me for my passport, repeating the picture after my expression in the first shot is a little off. We discuss our work, the state of gun violence in the country, and what we value in life. He shows me pictures of his family on the wall.
I leave the shop glad for the chance to have met these two fellows. Another positive step in my Malawian journey behind me, I stroll back home along a cold Chicago street.