Man, day five and I already feel like I’ve been here forever. I’ve learned a lot about this place over a short amount of time. A few examples. First, the no-touching policy thing we all heard about here? Absolutely true. They’re doing it to prevent Ebola transmission, which makes sense. But if you know me at all, you know it’d probably be easier for me to make-out with everyone I met on the street, than to not touch anyone for any reason – but that’s how it works here. The first few days I was ‘left hanging’ for a combined total of about 40 minutes – hand fully outstretched or fist extended like I’m posing for a boxing promo shot – and that number doesn’t include multiple dodged hugs. Believe me, I’ve been through the fire and there’s no good way to play it off. You just come to the realization in the fourth second or so, and then try to focus on the next one while breaking eye contact ASAP. In Liberia, you can “touch elbows” as an alternative, but I’m still getting used to it.
Next thing. So, you’re sitting in a nice restaurant in the U.S., say, Applebee’s. You notice that a guy has an interestingly patterned sweater, and you’re trying to decide if it’s grey or green just to while the time away. All of a sudden, he looks up – and makes eye contact. He’s looking directly into your eyeballs! What do you do? Well if you’re me, you rip your eyes away as quickly as humanly possible and scan the room in a tizzy, trying to look interested in something, but really only interested in him and his gaze and hoping – just really, really praying he didn’t think you were staring at him. After a few seconds of trying to snap your own neck but secretly looking back to see if he’s still looking at you in your peripheral, you think “what the heck am I even doing?! He’s in Applebee’s, he’s not important! I don’t care about this guy! But you do. We all do. Liberia is the opposite of that. They don’t have Applebee’s here and consequently, have never learned the ‘no eye contact’ thing. Liberians will make eye contact with you and stare – hard. They will scan every feature – up and down – drinking you in until they’ve had their fill, until you feel like you can’t wear white on your wedding day anymore. When they’ve picked out another target, they will move on and leave you a crumbled heap of nerves. It’s not racist or dominating or sexual at all: they literally all do it, men and women alike to both foreigners and their own people. It’s just an African thing, I think.
After I thought about it and realized how silly it all was, I decided to hold the gaze of the next person who did it to me. A visual game of chicken, if you will. I sized up the least-threatening person I could find: a fifty-something year old grandpa with a pink shirt on and a pile of cassava on his head. He couldn’t beat Ghandi in an arm-wrestling competition. I turned to him and squinted.
Then it all went black. I don’t even remember what happened but I’m telling you, it physically hurt me. Never again.
Ok, so back to business.
Today was our second day of what they call “cold” training. Basically, this means that we’re in a classroom setting learning about the basics of Ebola transmission, treatment and logistics, without being around any active cases. We have five days of this training – put on by the U.S. Military – and then three or so days of “hot training”. This is when we enter an Ebola unit and work in our assigned role with real patients, but under supervision of an experienced team. A few observations from class:
I’m really proud of Liberia. I think my perception of this place – I’m ashamed to admit it – was that Liberia was a relatively ignorant place in need of foreign knowledge and education. I would come with my team of Americans, Europeans and Asians and provide the first-world aid they are in such desperate need of. I’m realizing too often in my brain, poverty and lack of resources get churned into the mixing bowl along with laziness and ignorance and I bake myself a cake of misconceptions. Let me clarify: these people are poor and do need help, but are far from lazy and ignorant. Sure, there are some older and rural Liberians who think Ebola is a myth, but there are many more than that who turn out to these classes every day, study hard and practice at home, so they can protect their countries and families. Of our class of sixty-ish, nine of us are on the Heart to Heart squad, three are German military and maybe eight to ten others are from other various places. The rest are all nationals: Liberian nurses, doctors, firefighters, health care technicians and some with no skills at all, other than the willingness to learn and help. How many of us would turn out to work in close proximity to a deadly disease that was threatening our home? We have a lot to learn from and admire about these people.
Great teams mean everything to a goal. In class today, we did a number of pretty challenging Ebola scenarios including: what do you do with a pregnant Ebola patient? A patient with stroke-like symptoms, suspicious for Malaria yet without an Ebola rule-out? What about when a patient comes in to the ETU and you think they’re making up their symptoms, or families are difficult? For scenarios like these (the last one especially!) I really want to make sure everyone in the KU ED knows how much I appreciate them. I was flying through these cases and feeling really confident and competent; but I haven’t been out of school long enough to forget that genetic intelligence has nothing to do with it, haha. In the last three-and-a-half years, the KU ED made me into the nurse I am, and so directly affected the care I’m going to be giving. For that and many other things, I’m grateful.
Also, we’re going to stick patients for IVs and blood draws through a minimum of two heavy gloves and foggy masks, wrapped in plastic tarps in the blazing Liberia humidity. So my IV Therapy people get an electronic elbow touch from me too.
Lastly I want to say, I read all of your kind words about how brave and selfless I’m being out here in Africa. And while I really, honestly appreciate everything that’s said – seriously, keep saying it – I want to also make sure you don’t forget that we are the same. What I mean is, I think we can get so enthusiastic about someone’s story, that we put them on a pedestal. I know I’ve done this with a few of my personal heroes: Paul Farmer and Henri Nouwen. The danger in this is, we very quickly begin believing that they are somehow different, more equipped or just plain better, than we are. And the truth is, you all can do what I’m doing. I’m not any kinder, friendlier, more intelligent, or adventurous than any one of you. I suppose my point is this:
If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, by all means, stay there. If everyone was in Liberia, my Wi-Fi would be too slow. But if there’s something in you that feels like you should do something different; if, when you hear about Liberia and its people, the excitement swirls in your stomach like it did mine; if you just don’t even know what you want, but an adventure calls out to you, my advice is this: the movies lie. Gandalf will not come to your house asking about the Ring. Mr. Darcy will not be kneeling in a marriage proposal when you open your door. Hedwig will not come flying in your window. A great purpose or fulfilling adventure will not come to you. You have go to it. It’s out there, but you have to go to it. Sometimes it’s a single decision, and sometimes it’s a whole lifetime worth – leading you there.
But the thing you gotta remember is, you don’t have to be Henri or Paul or Frodo or Elizabeth or Harry. And you sure as heck don’t have to be me.