I can barely remember the misty, grey mornings that met us upon our arrival in Tappita, not that long ago. Anymore, it seems like the sun just wakes up and races to the very top of the sky, looking for the best position from which to pummel us. I suppose I could take it as poetic retribution for all these plastic water bottles I’ve thrown away (note: if you ever visit Africa, do not be the guy who, upon arriving in a third world country ravaged by a deadly epidemic, asks where the recycling is. You will be laughed at, I promise.), but mostly it just makes me grumpy. At the moment, our poor little canvas tent is having an especially hard time keeping us from roasting – little metal fans are our pathetic defense against the blinding, white sunlight and hot, red earth outside the flaps.
Speaking of hot, I asked Dr. Taty the other day if it ever gets cold enough to snow in Africa. First, he didn’t understand the concept and then confused it with “dew”. I’m thinking that might be because the word is so seldom used that people forget it exists, like chicanery (meaning trickery, but cooler) or Jake Lloyd (seriously, whatever happened to that guy). After laboriously communicating the meaning of the word snow (“like frozen rain, you know, cold. Brrr.”) he burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I didn’t understand all of what his joyous response was, but understood parts of it – “Hahaha, ah my man! De BIG, BIG pile of sno and not seeing anyting! No walking anywhere, eva! Hahaha” – then proceeded to re-enact what looked like a man spinning a car wheel frantically, wide-eyed with squealing noises included, before crashing because of “de BIG ice evra where, all ova! HAHAHAHA! My man!”. I took that as a no. Which made me wonder: what do Africans with no experience of snow think we mean in holiday carols like White Christmas? Is Bing Crosby an infamous symbol of white supremacy in the third world? I’m too nervous to ask. So, if you’re keeping track, the rules for “looking intelligent during African discourse” now include: don’t ask about recycling, winter weather, or Christmas music with possible racist overtones.
Oh, right. Ebola. On that front, a little bumpy, but we’re rolling along fairly well. Today marks our fourth day officially open. We were informed last week as the finishing touches were being applied, that the Liberia Ministry of Health needed to visit to approve the structure. This was a little surprising and pushed us back about a week, but went fairly well from what I’m told. I wasn’t actually there – when important people arrive I’m usually asked to go run errands or find myself oddly locked in the bathroom for a few hours at a time. In addition, while we were waiting for the dignitaries I was called into a meeting with our charge nurse and pharmacist, who would be leaving shortly. Somehow, I exited the room bearing the title of Pharmacy Supervisor, which means I oversee pharmacy shifts and training, ensure medications are stocked appropriately and carry a lot of keys. I still don’t know what most of them open. At this point, I’m not sure if they selected me because I did well on my drug calculations or because it’s another room to lock me into (I was starting to wise up to the bathroom thing). We have air-conditioners to keep the medications cool however, so honestly either reason is fine by me.
So yeah, we’re pretty much done and stocked and staffed except for one small detail: we don’t have any patients. We’ve had a few sent over for evaluation by way of the hospital, but we’ve sent them right back because they don’t fit case criteria. The principle at work is: you don’t want to admit someone to an ETU unless you’re reasonably sure they have Ebola, because if you’re wrong, you could very well give them the disease you’re fighting. And we’re not equipped to be anything but an ETU. Which, you know, sounds good in principle, but if I’m really honest, is frustrating. Now to be fair, viruses are difficult to predict and you can never be sure what the next few weeks will hold, but to most observers it appears that the disease has slowed considerably here and migrated north to Sierra Leone. Last we heard, there were less than forty confirmed Ebola cases in-country.
It feels a little bit like training for an Olympic event only to discover its cancelled (I’ll have much more sympathy for the curling team when their bell tolls) or walking in after the punch line of a joke while everyone is still laughing. It’s frustrating to be late and feel like you’ve missed out on your goal, but as I’ve thought about it, I realized there’s also a little embarrassment mixed in. Which is a weird emotion to feel in this scenario, right? It doesn’t really make sense at first. But in trying to sort through it all, I’ve discovered that I feel embarrassed because of failed expectations – because of what I think my friends and family expected of me. Because of what I expected of myself. I’d planned to come here and suffer in the heat and battle the disease on the front lines and come home with something to show for it. Or something like that. After the outpouring of well-wishes and kind words lavished upon me, to come here and not risk a whole heck of a lot or see many patients feels almost like a deception. As if you were to go to a funeral and say nice things and make a slideshow Powerpoint and cry, then realize the guy was sitting in the back of the church the entire time, healthy as a horse.
I’m sure that most of you will tell me there’s nothing to be ashamed of or disappointed in. I’ve been amazed so often by others’ graciousness that I really should just start expecting it. But regardless of how others feel – and I’m sure it’s all genuine – I think the hardest thing will be to allow myself the same grace. I can’t say that I came here expecting to be Hercules and cut through Ebola like the three-headed Hydra, but I did want to play a part in something important; to serve in something I could be proud of. You know, there’s something about growing up and acting “responsible” that makes life feel hollow sometimes. You find yourself getting disproportionately upset when HyVee is out of your favorite peanut butter, or disproportionately happy when gas prices are under two dollars. Then if you’re like me, you get to a place where you think, “What am I doing? This is all so insignificant! What have I done that’s really meaningful for anyone else?” Then in what feels like no time, you’ve quit your job, boarding a plane to Liberia with a backpack and your optimism, proud of yourself for finally doing something about it. But to what end? I finally busted out of the hamster wheel to find another hamster wheel with more sun, right outside. That’s where the disappointment sets in, if that makes sense.
As I read through what I’m writing, it all sounds a little selfish – as if the point of anything always has to begin and end with me – but it’s how I feel. I am learning a lot about myself here – as you’ve all been privy to – but I’m not sure how much good it’s been for anyone else. I’ve seen many a Pinterest post about the journey being more important than the destination, but it’s harder than it sounds to buy into it. No one really wants the stupid participation ribbon. So what is the effort really worth, regardless of the payout? As a great friend once told me, “Do the next best thing you know to do.” Maybe I’m just going to start with that and hope something valuable takes shape amidst the insecurity. I can think of worse ways to live.