When I was younger I wanted to be a gymnast. Then Tiffani-Amber Thiessen on Saved by the Bell (don't ask). Then came notions of being a teacher, a writer and an aid worker. I suppose in some ways I became a shade of all of those things as an adult- obviously, minus the Tiffani Amber Thiessen and marrying Zach bit ;)
Many of you know that medicine was a path that was very much chosen, paved and tended to by my parents. One that in so many ways left me without knowing there was a different option or knowing that I , in fact, could actually create my own path that I could cultivate and tend to without their plot by numbers how-to.
This trip to Tanzania was a firm footstep on that new path.
I'm not sure when I was first introduced to Trish Scanlan but her reputation well preceded her- through colleagues who had gone to volunteer before me (for much longer than my weeks there) and from my time working in the haematology unit at work. A woman who had gone to Dar-es-Salaam as part of her Masters project and then subsequently stayed and in the process, changed the face of cancer in Tanzania. (see below)
It was beyond inspiring. And so I decided to jet off alone, with a large suitcase full of medical supplies completely unsure of what was on the other side. What nerves I must have been hiding subsequently dissolved after a flight delay, 24 hours in Istanbul and many a lost-in-translation moments. But come Monday, I was back to myself and very ready to start this journey.
Except that the first week was tough. Heartbreakingly, intimidatingly tough. With broken Kiswahili and suddenly surrounded by children and families whose lives were forever changed by a diagnosis of cancer in a resource limited setting and undeniably unsure of where I could fit in. I remember having doubts about whether I could stick this journey alone.
Then the second week came, an acute deterioration of a patient- a resuscitation and suddenly the unfamiliar setting became familiar. I've been here with a patient before, I've done this before. It changed things for me and it broke that shell of uncertainty that was very much hindering me. I started actively involving myself in everything to an embarrassing degree. And that's the thing about volunteering alone or abroad-- you are forced to come out of your shell, make opportunities and learn pro-activeness in ways that aren't always taught in a classroom or textbook.
The language barrier heightened everything else for me, I've always been a keen observer (hello photography!) but now even more dependent on clinical skills and inspection for evaluating a child. The experience allowed me to engage in healthcare at its most basic level (education, implementation of protocols and treatment) and made me fall even harder for the pathology that I knew I was already growing to love. For someone who had spent so long being unsure , it was the first strong pounding of clarity.
Rachel MacDonnell entered the ward shortly thereafter, leading an outreach resuscitation team, and was every bit as dynamic and encouraging as one could be. My Tanzanian colleagues Gertrude and Edith with Rachel were the friends I am so proud to have made and I will always remember their infinite kindness and patience with me. With Trish and Dr. Jane at our helm, the infinite forces that be - we tried to build on integrating and supporting the system that these ladies tirelessly put in place with Their Lives Matter.
There are so many stories I will forever remember and while I don't normally share work here for so many reasons -the one memory that holds so pure in my heart was as we walked back from ICU on to the ward (exhausted, tired, hearts heavy and full) , I heard some of the kids from another ward ask who I was. One of them called out ''that's my rafiki (friend)''.
Then the first photo in this post and the one below happened.
I was so scared going to Tanzania that I wouldn't be able to make a difference , a change or impact there. That last week, I found my place as a friend and advocate for those little ones. And I'm forever grateful.
*grainy photos from my Instagram
If you've gotten this far in the story (thank you and also fair play if you have! I'm a ridiculously verbose being to a fault) please, take a moment to go read more on Their Lives Matter. Give, Donate, Do- it is without a doubt, a wonderful organisation changing the face of cancer in Tanzania.