Saturday, July 25, 2015

Veins, Planes, and Unexpected Detours

A self portrait I had taken in Albania when my kidney wanted to hang out in the hospital

There are times when I would give anything to snap my fingers and immediately transport myself back home. Almost without exception, these times are when I am sick. No matter how long I roam or how far from home I go, getting ill in strange places never gets easier. This is no doubt compounded by the fact that for three out of the four years I have lived overseas I have been in developing countries with a very poor standard of healthcare. When you are healthy and fit, the lack of healthcare is a hazy background detail. It’s something you see out of the corner of your eye, and you know it’s there, but you’re too busy focusing on motorbike rides under the stars and secluded beaches and hiking to castles on top of mountains or early Sunday morning brunches or various new holidays to celebrate.

And then you get sick and all the adventures screech to a halt and you are taking off your pants in front of your boss in the doctor’s office, or trying to Google translate Cyrillic to know what kind of medicine you’re taking, or puking your guts up alone in an empty hotel in Cambodia, or wandering through halls carrying a cup of your piss because you don't know what to do with it or where to go next since you can't communicate. When it gets really bad you’re sleeping off pneumonia on a mattress in your friends’ living room, or going to bed with a hunk of metal in your eyeball knowing that it will be almost 20 hours at the earliest before it can be removed, or shivering through an anaphylactic reaction to Cipro as doctors busy themselves over you in a language you don’t understand. 

My Albanian tattoo- another biopsy

Sometimes you’re helping others, like when your co-worker’s foot goes gangrenous and you have to help him dismantle his entire Laotian life in 12 hours and meet doctors in bars for last minute insulin and antibiotic shots and document writing so he can get on a plane and not die. Sometimes these things are funny, like when you are getting your nose and ear canals blown out by a strange metallic hummingbird medical device, without being warned first that the device will be going in your nose and down your throat and then attaching to tubes in your ears. Thanks, Japan- good one! Other times, when you have to cross borders after a night of no sleep with two pieces of metal shards in your cornea, knowing that the end of your journey will be at a hospital where you hope the best doctor is on staff because they need to cut open your eye with a needle, things are so very far from funny that you find yourself crying in the back of the taxi with your kind co-worker who came along to translate.

Once the metal was out and I knew I was't going to be blind, my tiny jock strap pirate patch was actually funny

In the last year, I have had pneumonia, dental work with no anesthetic, a kidney infection, metal in my eye, a foot injury, and heat exhaustion, as well as a skin cancer scare and biopsy on my face. I have also had a problem with my right foot and leg. It would swell and throb, especially if I had been sitting a long time. Blood tests showed that my kidney and liver were fine, I didn’t have diabetes, my thyroid was fine, everything that can be tested in blood was in the perfect range, and in a last ditch attempt to figure out what was wrong, my doctor did an EKG and ruled out any heart problems. I was declared to be in remarkable health, and since I was young and fit my swelling and pain was chalked up to dehydration or maybe hormones. I accepted the heat/dehydration explanation and figured it would all magically melt away once I hit Russia after one last hurrah in Thailand.

So at the end of my contract in June I had big plans to spend my last nine days in Asia seeing my friends in Bangkok and exploring a new island. Instead I ended up needing a biopsy on my face, so I hung around Bangkok waiting for the results (waiting to see if you have basal cell carcinoma- definitely another time I was wishing I could snap myself back home). It was during this time that my leg finally got to the point where I had to know what was wrong.

The same day I found out I didn’t have basal cell carcinoma I went to the hospital to see a vascular surgeon, and upon listening to my blood flow in my legs he scheduled me for an ultrasound the next morning. Before I left he told me the nurse would measure me for socks. Socks? What? I don’t even own socks after two years in SE Asia. The nurse comes in and measures me, and the doctor writes out a prescription for socks. I pick them up and return to the nurse, who takes me into a room with two more nurses. The three of them cram me into thigh high, beige stockings. I ask them how long I need to wear them, and they say every day. Yes yes, but *how long*? How many days?

I was met with quizzical looks. “Every day. You wear them always.”

I had come to the hospital in a pretty little sundress and strappy sandals, and now I had on thick, beige socks. They wrinkled awkwardly at the ankles- nothing dainty or sheer about them, no mistaking their medical purpose.

I was ushered back to the doctor to ask about the socks. He told me I needed to wear the socks every day for at least 4-5 hours, preferably more, and all day when I was working, traveling on buses, trains, planes or walking a long way when hiking/backpacking. This all came out in a quick rush, a stream of facts and advice and pronouncements. Then he told me to take good care of myself and said goodbye. It was 7:00 p.m. by the time I finished; I was leaving for Russia at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.

I was in pain, apparently my veins sucked, the socks were tight and ugly but were still the most expensive clothes I currently owned, and I had just said goodbye to my home, friends, and students of two years and was supposed to be on a plane to Russia the next morning, alone, to start a new job with strangers.

Y’all, I really, really wanted to quit that job. I wanted to not get on the plane. I wanted to stay in Bangkok with my friends, walking to yoga down the street, getting foot massages, and figuring out what to do next. I wanted to get a second opinion. Hell, I wanted time to get more than ONE SINGLE PAIR of these dumb socks, at least. But instead I went back to my friends' hostel and got good advice from them and, later, via Skype, my Dad- I should still go. So I did.

That first week in Russia was awful. I was researching how to get tights that didn't scream Grandma Town Population Me at the same time I was starting a new job and meeting a new family and trying to be a happy, positive nanny. I cried myself to sleep a few nights. I cried myself awake a few days. 

I woke up every morning and crammed myself into the tights and did yoga. I put them on with my bathing suit, with my sundresses, with my workout pants. I lost 8 pounds in three weeks. I started sleeping with my feet up on pillows. I spent 15 minutes, three times a day, every day, on my back with my feet up the wall. I got used to taking cold showers morning and night. I started marching in place when sitting and putting my feet up whenever I could. I researched causes and risk factors. It’s frustrating to feel betrayed by my body- when I read through the risk factors, I do none of them/have none of them except for standing a lot, but I’m young and fit; I’m active and don’t smoke- the doctor said usually that would counteract the standing from teaching. 

My view three times a day

I often felt very alone and angry, but mostly I tried to not go down dark woe is me rabbit holes. There were days when I didn't even think about it and I reminded myself that a second opinion might yield a different diagnosis. I had lived with this intermittent pain and swelling for a year, but now that it had a name and websites and photos, it was making me far more anxious. Eventually I just put a stop to researching because I couldn’t take one more picture of a lumpy, swollen, brown and red limb that was almost unrecognizable as a calf thanks to a huge, open, bleeding ulcer- and I reminded myself these were worst case, rare scenarios that happen when someone is bed bound and obese. I was also stumbling on way too many blood clot blogs (um, those are really a buzz kill, just trust me).

At the moment I am feeling frustrated thinking about having to wear thigh high compression socks every day for the rest of my life. These are not pantyhose, or leggings. Medical compression is a whole different story- you need a prescription because they are a medical device. They are actually difficult and time consuming to put on. They are tight and hot and don’t look like pantyhose. And even the most basic, ugly beige are a whopping $90- $100 a pair; colorful pairs are custom dyed to order and run about $125 a pair. They only last about 3-6 months. It’s altogether just a really annoying diagnosis- at a healthy weight, with daily exercise and compression, I have a totally normal life. It probably interferes with me less than someone who has diabetes, or maybe the same as someone who has contact lenses, but it does take some getting used to.

She looks pretty smug about this whole thing but I'm not there yet, lady. 

I think this is most hard for me because I consider myself a very low maintenance person and traveler who is down to go whenever and up for whatever. I don’t own a lot of clothes or shoes, I don’t wear make-up, I don’t brush or style my hair, I’m usually just throwing on a sundress and a pair of sandals and going somewhere. Incorporating these stockings into my daily life means figuring out new clothes to wear, getting new shoes, trying to make them look like something that I chose to wear instead of a medical intervention. 

Nothing says summer like thick beige tights, amirite?
I really can’t say enough how grateful I am to my friends and family who talked me through these last few weeks, giving me the best pep talks via Skype even when I was crying, sending me kind messages that made me laugh, and just generally checking in on me and helping me deal. The family who employed me was so incredibly kind and supportive, and that helped immensely. Dealing with this diagnosis alone, in Russia, while starting a new job, was hard to say the least, but I did do it, and now it’s over. I am writing this on the train to Moscow, and tomorrow I will be heading to Switzerland. I’m trying to focus on one thing at a time- getting to Switzerland and getting more than one pair of (now very dingy) beige medical looking tights. Getting a second opinion. Exercising every day. Getting better at putting on the tights, because I still kind of suck at it. Losing more weight. These daily things are all I can do.

This morning in Moscow- glamorous

This was long and rambly, but I waited a month to write about it and I promise this is far more positive than I was those first few days. Before anyone says it, yes, I know this isn't cancer or something like that, but it is a curveball and it is something I'll have to manage and I do have to make changes for it. I thought about waiting to write this until I get a second opinion, and I thought about not writing at all because the last thing I need right now is one more person throwing shade about my looking for attention/pity, but I can't write about anything else until I get this off my chest because it's on my mind so here it is. Maybe this will clear out the cobwebs from the last month and free me up to write about something else.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

History Lessons my Students Taught Me

"The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. That’s equal to a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years. How does a country recover?"

When I accepted the job in Laos, I knew very little about the country. In high school and college I became familiar with Vietnam by studying the war and the protests and politics surrounding it; I volunteered with a non-profit that had schools in Cambodia as a result of my interest in helping the country recover from the Khmer Rouge; and as soon as I began daydreaming about travel, Thailand was on my list. But Laos? I never heard anything about it.

And that, frankly, is appalling, considering America's secret war there. When I first began researching Laos in Albania, I was in utter shock that I had no idea what had happened there, and what is still happening there as a result. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in the entire world- and they were bombed relentlessly despite being declared a neutral country. They were bombed as a convenience, as a strategy, as a simple calculation of efficiency, as an inadvertent strike against Vietnam. People lived in fear for nine long years as death rained down on them for no reason other than the unfortunate geographical positioning of their country and intervention from outside forces. They farmed at night, for fear of being targeted. They lived in caves, abandoned their homes, frantically moving trying to keep out of reach of the bombs.

"For survivors of the war, such as 84-year-old Kampuang Dalaseng, memories are still vivid. “I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything. If their president was here, I would slap him in the face.” A former professor of French, he was forced to flee the bombardments, abandoning the village of Bat Ngot Ngum in 1964 and taking shelter in a forest cave with his family and fellow villagers.
Whenever the American bombers targeted the area the group would move, in an endless cat-and-mouse game. Exhausted and demoralised, the family fled to Vietnam in 1969, embarking on a month-long walk only four days after Dalaseng’s wife had given birth to her second baby. The landscape around them was apocalyptic. “The bombs had destroyed everything,” he remembered. “There were no more animals or villages.” source

Laos still lives with the damage of these bombs every single day, as they continue to maim and kill. The U.S. has donated about $82 million to clean up the area. Do you think that sounds like a lot of money? No. No it isn't. This is a lot of money- spending between $13 and $18 million PER DAY to drop bombs on Laos for nine years. That is a lot of money. $82 million looks like a cheap band-aid in the face of those numbers. It is a token. It is a shame.

I undoubtedly have an ulterior motive, a definite agenda, as an English teacher. Through books, news articles, poems, watching documentaries, writing, and any number of other creative endeavors in the classroom, my highest goal is that my students become critical, compassionate thinkers who look for ways to improve themselves and others. This is far more important to me than the grades they get, how quickly they can recall four examples of adverbs of frequency, or how well they can memorize the unreasonably insane spelling rules of the English language.

This school year, my year 10 students all told me they wanted to volunteer in their communities. I try my best to foster a student led classroom- basically the students express interest in certain topics and activities and I find a way to tie it back into learning English in some way. This is how we found ourselves poring over Emily Dickinson poems and analyzing Sylvia Plath's emotions in our poetry unit. For the volunteer project, I wanted to help them find a cause they would enjoy researching and supporting, so we kicked around some ideas together. Nothing was really drawing them in. The previous school year, when I thought I would be leaving, I had found a job posting for the organization Lone Buffalo, a free English after school program in Phonsavan, the most bombed area of Laos. I suggested Lone Buffalo to them and they were instantly drawn in to the school- kids their age, playing football, learning English, and doing it all in a rural, remote part of their country which only 2 of my students had ever visited.

But they were particularly inspired by the story of Manophet, the Lone Buffalo himself, the man who spent his days translating for UXO Lao, which clears the endless bombs from America's secret war. His evenings were dedicated to the local children, teaching them English and coaching them in football. It was his dream that they would compete at the Gothia Cup in Sweden, and his students and athletes were set to go. But Manophet would not be going to Sweden. He died unexpectedly of a blood clot in his brain. His friends stepped in and created the Lone Buffalo Foundation to take the boys to Sweden, and from there they determined that Manophet's legacy had to live on. They set up a school, which is now thriving in Phonsavan. I reached out to the director, Mark, who was in town promoting the school's UXO awareness film "Don't Touch!" at the Vientiane Film Festival. He was supportive and interested and with his permission my students and I moved forward with our project- to raise enough money to sponsor one class for one full year.

We started with research. We read articles, we studied about America's secret war, we had lots of discussions and wrote about our plans, and I showed them this video.

This is a picture of my students as they watched that video, as well as another video showing an animation of just how many bombs America dropped on their country over almost a decade. Look at their faces. I can't tell you how hard it was for me to stand in there with them as they watched this- some of them tearing up, the boys furrowing their brows and blinking hard, the girls covering their mouths. They watched both the video and the animation twice through and the room was silent.

As soon as our research was over, we began talking about writing presentations that would inspire others to donate. We talked about being fact based, passionate, approachable, and trustworthy. We designated partners to go into specific classrooms, we had class treasurers and accountants, and we maintained journals about the experience. The students diligently collected money and spread the word for three months.

One of the most touching moments came from my Year 9 students. Earlier that year, I had helped them communicate respectfully, via persuasive, critical letters, with the administration of the school as to how their class business funds were being managed. As a result they had a meeting with the secondary department head, they were given new directions, and allowed greater autonomy over their earnings. They learned how to advocate effectively for themselves, even when it came to standing up to authority (something normally not done in Lao culture, especially for students interacting with teachers). When Year 9 learned of Year 10's fundraising, they told me in class one day that they wished to donate all of their funds to our project.

Thanks to a supportive and involved administration, active participation from all staff, the organization, diligence, and commitment of the students, and the assistance of Lone Buffalo Foundation in visiting our school, we met our goal. The Year 10 students were able to fully sponsor one class for a school year, and next year they will travel to Phonsavan to volunteer with those students, to learn more about the area, and to make connections with children leading very different lives.

I am constantly humbled by how my experiences in the classroom with my students can continually enrich me on deeper and deeper levels. Just when something happens and I think "This is it- it can't get any better, this is amazing" my students show me even greater things. Doing this project with my Year 10 kids- students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching for two years- was an absolutely perfect way to end my time at my school. I couldn't be more proud of them.

If you want more information on Lone Buffalo Foundation, or are interested in sponsoring a class, you can check out their Facebook page here. 

You can read more about the impact of the secret war here.