Graduation day finally came Friday, but not without a trial by fire. Well, as close to fire as you can get.
After four days of classes and lectures, our “final exam” so to speak, was a two-hour long scenario in which we had to apply the things we’d learned throughout the week to four separate patient cases, all taking place in the mock ETU. The actors/patients were all actual Ebola survivors, so they all did pretty well with the portrayal. Kinda like when Louis Stevens played himself in Transformers and the Indiana Jones movie. The simulation is partly to see how we react when some unique stuff is thrown at us (confused/combative patient, a healthy guy and dead body in the same room, etc.) but also to get us acclimated to wearing our PPE for around two hours at a time. The care aspect isn’t too tough by itself, but as they say, the devil is in the details.
One, you can’t touch your face. For any reason. Ever. Sweat in your eyes? Blink it off. Fly in your mask? Bat it down with your lashes or hope it suffocates. Anticipating these challenges, I shaved my beard off, which I frequently scratch and otherwise mess with. I have now officially given everything valuable I have to the people of Liberia.
Second, I discovered that I sweat at a rate that is far above the norm. Now, being soaked from head to toe isn’t so bad by itself, because you can pretend that you just got out of the ocean or something. The problem arises when I can feel my toes actively pruning, like falling asleep with feet in the kiddie pool. Or worse, when I lift my arms above my chest, the unknown sweat reservoir that is currently pooling atop my tucked-in gloves rushes down the back of my arm like a foul Splash Mountain. There’s just no way to make that normal.
In class on Thursday, we met a survivor, who ended up playing a role in the mock ETU and educating us on how it feels to contract it. She, her husband and young child all came down with Ebola at the same time, but both of them died while she was too sick to visit. Her community rejected her out of fear and anger, and so she finds herself alone in new city, figuring out what her future looks like. I thought of her as I pitied myself in my size-medium sauna and realized that if she can persevere, than I have laughably little in the way of excuses.
So next up is “hot training” where I’ll head Tuesday to work with actual Ebola patients, and get my (double-gloved) hands dirty for the first time. So we just wait until then. I’m not so great at waiting, so my mind sprouts forth observations about being here. Possible the most random: Liberia makes me feel somewhat like an earthworm. Plucked from its familiar entanglement of roots and earth, contorting blindly in a desperate attempt to find something familiar or safe, I relate to him. You realize after living overseas a few times, that your heart wriggles around like that whether or not you want it to.
In Kansas City, I had a thousand things in-process and a thousand things more to take their place if God-forbid, I actually completed anything. When you make the move to a place like Liberia, you prepare to give up the obvious: egg-nog shakes, Google Fiber, regularly-scheduled barber visits. But what you don’t realize is that all the tiniest things – notes you intended to write, thirty-second YouTube clips, poaching eggs in the morning; i.e. the muted buzz of your life motor droning on – these things sustained you a lot more than you knew. And you take one plane ride and all of a sudden, like a downed power-line, all the lights in the tiny windows of your life go dark.
Granted, I am doing something; something that I know surely makes a difference. But the issue is that it’s the only thing I’m doing and I’m not at all used to that. As the anxiety bubbles up more and more violently from an unknown fountainhead, I’m coming to grips with the fact that I live my life on monkey bars. Swinging from one to the next, I’m content when I’m in-motion and constantly anticipating what’s next. I’ve realized this from time-to-time in the act of swinging itself – when a meeting is cancelled or I accidentally wake up early enough to think – but always somehow convince myself that my relentless activity is noble. I plunge back into the beckoning tidal wave of my commitments, a motivated man seeking to ‘suck the marrow out of life!’ as Thoreau disturbingly chose to put it. But conversely and very strangely, Liberia has been for me somewhat of a momentum-killer. All I’m able to do is focus on these patients and my role in their lives. And my heart is absolutely throwing a kindergarten-sized tantrum in here.
But as time goes on and the dust begins to clear a little bit, I realize that it’s not noble at all – this desire for activity; this oppressive treadmill of accomplishment. It’s really just fear. Fear of not doing enough, having enough or being enough. And like the child, as my momentum stops with no new bar to swing to, I begin to think on how sweaty my hands have gotten and how distant the ground is and how I really haven’t come very far at all.
But it shouldn’t be like that at all! How awful it is to measure your self-worth on what you can get accomplished. I don’t want to live like that. I don’t think God intended me to live like that. What would my life look like if it could just be enough? If my work here in Liberia, whether I directly contribute to saving lives or just come out with a new appreciation for every-meal rice, could just be what it is and nothing else. I think that would be nice. I wonder then if my love and concern for my patients here would be more focused and substantial, not fractured in a million directions like light through a prism. I think there’s more than this panicked life so many of us live. Than the constant activity we both create and despise concurrently. But man, it is really difficult to find out about yourself. Hopefully, it doesn’t just end there.
“Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” – Jonathan Foer
So maybe I’ll hop down off the old playground equipment for a minute (or four months), just to see what it feels like. I’ll let you know what’s down here.
Note: I updated the Page now titled, ‘the cause and the cure‘ for those of you who’d like to know a little more detail about Ebola and how we treat it. You can access it by clicking the menu icon in the top left corner. Also, you may notice I’ve started a gallery in the same area. I have more pictures than I can use in the posts, so please click through if it makes you happy.