The Medical Evacuation

This is a week I’ve long dreamt about it.

On Friday, all of my group, ED 12, will pile into Peace Corps vehicles and be charted off to Semonkong for our close-of-service conference. The COS conference is the beginning of the end: when we pick dates for leaving, start on all the necessary paper work to finish our service and it’s the final time we will all be together as a group. It is the culmination of trainings and workshops, a celebration for making it to the end.

But I am not in Lesotho right now and there is a chance that I may miss this long-awaited event.

Last week Wednesday and I received the official word that I would be medically evacuated to Pretoria. For about move months, starting when I was training for the ultra marathon, I’ve been dealing with frequent urination, headaches and nausea. The doctors in Lesotho and the nearby Bloemfontain medical clinic have ran tests without reaching a diagnosis. My case was referred to doctors in D.C. and, after more tests, D.C. decided that we have exhausted all of our local resources and that I would need to go somewhere to see specialists and continue the search for this mysterious illness. The number of times I pass now ranges from 16 to 20 a day, with at least four times a night.

When they called me about the medical evacuation, they gave me the choice: go now with the no indication of when I would return or follow up with doctors in the U.S. Basically, to me, this was a choice between my job and my health. I was a mess. It’s hard to explain this situation to people and I’ve debated about putting this on the blog, but ultimately I decided to be open about it as that’s always been one of my goals with my writing. To some, it may seem like nothing: so you just go to the bathroom a lot, what is wrong with that? But when you live in a country where there aren’t bathrooms at every corner or when I have to be on a taxi for numerous hours there is a lot of mental stress. The headaches and nausea forced me home many days and I can’t remember the last time I had a decent night’s sleep.

Then there is the underlying fear of what is this and why can’t they figure it out.

The medical evacuation comes at a very inconvenient time in regards to my COS conference. It was always my goal to go after the conference and we had that worked out but then I thought they weren’t going to send me until late September or early October, which I felt was too close to my COS date as I don’t want to spend my precious limited time here alone in a medical office in South Africa. There was miscommunication and I was told Wednesday that the appointments were set during the worst week possible and I would not be able to reschedule them, putting my attendance at the COS conference very much in the air.

Again, I had the choice to go now or wait until I return to the U.S. to check up on this and I can’t stress how hard it is to continually choose between my health and my service. There is a lot at stake with this. There is a chance that they could find what it is, easily treat it and send me back to Lesotho where I will happily complete my service. There is also a chance that they can’t find the cause or they do and it is bigger than they are capable of treating and I will be medically separated.

This was my thought process:

I could cancel the appointments, leaving me free to attend the conference without doubt. I’d return to site for the last three months and finish my service just as I had intended. But I wouldn’t get better. I’d still climb out of bed several times a night, wondering what this is. I’d likely skip a few classes because my head is pounding or my stomach indicates that soon it will force all of its contents up the wrong way. Then, upon my return to the United States, which is supposed to be a celebratory time, I would have to work with D.C. to set up appointments in South Dakota, likely in Sioux Falls because I will need to see specialists. And what if they find something and say why didn’t you take care of this sooner? Why were you so stubborn? Didn’t you know your health is one of the most important things you have?

Or I could go to Pretoria and potentially miss my COS conference. I have no idea how long I would be gone and what if it is more than a week and instead of sitting with my host family or helping prepare my students for their final exams I am sitting alone in a city that I really don’t want to be in. That is not how one should spend her remaining months of service. What if they can’t figure it out and my 45 days expires? (Peace Corps grants 45 days for a medical evacuation and if the problem is not resolved in that time, the volunteer will be sent home on a medical separation.) I have worked too damn hard to get here – five years that has included a two-year application process, an evacuation, a lengthy reapply, 22 months of pain and joy, two years from my family and more emotions than I’ve ever experience in my life – and I refuse to end my service with a medical separation. But what if they do figure it out and it’s bigger than I am ready for, then what?

After tears and lots of support from amazing friends and family, I ultimately decided to go to Pretoria in hopes of finally, after five months, getting some answers. I owe this to all that I want to accomplish in life. I owe it to my friends and family. I owe it to my future children. But, above all, I owe it to myself.

Peace Corps flew me to Pretoria on Monday and I’ve already had my first appointment. At this point, the specialist and the regional Peace Corps doctors have a strong inclination as to what is causing these symptoms and it is something that is very treatable with medication. I still have one more appointment and my COS conference is still a big, black question mark.

Somewhere in my mid-20s, I lost my faith. Between broken hearts and shattered dreams, I stopped attending church, I gave up praying and I kind of pushed spiritual feelings aside. In Lesotho, though, that faith has resurged and is deeper than ever before. Maybe I needed to lose it in order to find it again or maybe it was the incredible spiritual friends I’ve met here, but my relationship with God is what is getting me through this. Although I was really upset initially about the medical evacuation, I am unprecedentedly calm now and that is because I understand that there is a higher power at work. I’ve put my faith in God and I am trusting the unknown of this, both in me making it to my COS conference and my health. It may seem like bad timing on the outside, but I know this is the right all part of a plan He’s got for me and all I can do is have faith in that.

Through my meditation, I’ve been trying to focusing on embracing life with love rather than fear. I’ve come to realize that I live my life always trying to avoid pain and that I’m constantly on the lookout for ways that I will fall. But when I do that I miss the love and lesson around me. I forget to see how beautiful even tough situations can be.

Wednesday night, as I processing all that was happening, I was playing with my sister’s baby. He’s six months now and has so many expressions. My purpose every day is to make that little boy smile because when he does there is only love in the room. He was smiling and cooing at me and I could feel the love in the bottom of my stomach, but not just from him. Sometimes we go through tough things to remind us we are not alone and, although I’ve foolishly believed that before, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. My fellow PCVs called, emailed and messaged me statements of support and love. They want me to be with them this weekend but mostly they want me to be OK. Even staff members called and sent SMSes, reminding me how valued I am in this agency.

I don’t know what will happen, but all I can do is have a bit of faith and take each day one at a time. Friday is still far off and I have two appointments to go through and that is my main concern. I need to be healthy right, now, and that is what I am going to do. The rest will fall into place as it should and I will trust that is best.

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10 thoughts on “The Medical Evacuation

  1. I am very much thinking of you Heather. You made the right choice to and I am right behind you praying for that speedy recovery and return back to your second home Lesotho. Big love from the Mountain Kingdom x

  2. Praying for you Heather. You are so honest, strong and you are correct in that our health is so important to accomplishing our journey. Your doctors, friends and fellow Peace Corp volunteers will be strengthened by the faith you have expressed. I know I have been. Please know you are loved – many are praying.

  3. Heather, I know the timing of this is not ideal at all, but you are making the right decision about seeking treatment for whatever’s going on. Thinking about you and wishing you the very best. You’re a super strong girl and can tackle anything.

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  5. Pingback: Week 10: What’s left – A Sunday Morning

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