The Space Between

May 2nd, 2008 by shaunas

The in-between spaces.. The words you don’t say, the plans you don’t make.. The places in which you find yourself, always, which you didn’t expect, didn’t anticipate.. I am reflecting in this way because yet another year has passed, another extra-uterine year celebrated.. And I find myself trying to imagine myself as I was ten years ago, to remember who I was, what my plans were, and it escapes me, that girl, who she was and who she hoped to be.. And so I try instead to reflect on whom I am today, with the full realization that this is all that matters. But I know that who I am is what I do. It isn’t how I dress or what music I listen to or what book I am reading, or how others judge me or how I judge myself, it is really and truly what I do and how I engage in the world, this is who I am. Here, now, is where I make the most important choices, and I know that each one matters in a way that I may not fully understand, but I know it is important.

Some people get star struck over celebrities or athletes and I never really got that. It had never happened to me, until last night. Not that he is a super athlete or a movie star, but last night I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. James Orbinski and I froze. Something completely incoherent came out of my mouth and I think my friend actually had to nudge me into coherence. He might as well have been Britney Spears, not that I would become incoherent in front of Britney. And I know he is just a regular guy, but then again he’s not, he’s Dr. James Orbinski.

He was speaking, or having a conversation about his new book.. “An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the 21st Century.” Truth be told, I’ve been on an Orbinski some-word-that-is-like-obsession-only-less-crazy for the last two weeks. Last week I saw the film “Triage,” in which he returns to Somalia and to Rwanda, to remember, to meet the people, the friends and colleagues and patients he left behind, the people that are still there because he was there. I swear I’m not a stalker, I am just simply grateful, that there is a Dr. James Orbinski, someone who hasn’t given up on the world, despite everything he has experienced, first-hand, and I think it’s amazing.

Dr. Orbinski speaks a lot about the “right” choices. The decisions we make, and their consequences. He speaks a lot about citizenship and each and every person’s responsibility and part in the world. He speaks about how we each have a responsibility to demand a better world, for ourselves, for those who are suffering and who will continue to suffer unless we each make an effort to change it. I know a lot of people wonder what they can do, and they feel powerless to change anything. But he made a good point last night, about power, and the perception of who has it. If we want things to be better, we must demand it, through speaking out, as the first and foremost action, and through living, and choosing, each day, how we will engage in the world.

What I wanted to say, as I froze up, was simply.. Thank you. In the moments when I am seeking how to move forward, to reconcile the past, to make room in my life for the future, I am reminded by your words, by your offering, that I still have the possibility of right now, and because of that, hope is something that can manifest itself into a better future for us all. I am shown what is possible, from the efforts of one man, who firstly and most importantly speaks out, because it really is the first and most important action for change, so thank you. Truly. For your courage, for continuing to not see any other choice but the right choice, thank you. It really matters, for us all.

I am not the same girl that I was ten years ago. Today I am a woman who understands that I am an integral and important part of the world and that the choices I make, right now, today, do matter. I may be nothing like I planned to be, but I am happy with and grateful for who I have become.


Home now…or something called home anyway..

April 10th, 2008 by shaunas

I’m home now. Or something that resembles something that I used to call home in some other lifetime. Everything is very surreal. I have been home for five weeks. Five weeks.

I have spent a lot of time staring at my bedroom ceiling. A good friend told me that it’s probably normal and to keep doing it as long as I feel like it, and that eventually I will want to get up and paint the ceiling.. that hasn’t really happened yet.

But I went back to work anyway. I thought it would be better for me to be distracted, to focus on patients and families. I have worked five shifts now in a “developped world” hospital that never runs out of gloves or clean needles or medicine and there is always a doctor there when you need one. There is running water and electricity. Nobody has cholera or measles. It feels very strange. In all honesty I am not really sure what to do with myself.

I keep describing the experience of coming home to people by saying that it feels as if I have been abducted by aliens and dropped on another planet that is vaguely familiar. Vaguely.

People I barely know ask me some pretty personal questions without even realizing it. What was the hardest thing for me? How did it change me as a person? I’m not even sure I can answer any of that for myself. My family is upset because I am not talking about “it”, but I don’t know what to say. How do you explain an entire year of your life? How do you explain life in another universe?

I miss Kilwa. I miss Congo. I miss my friends, my family in a land far, far away. I am happy to be here, now, in Toronto, but I am just not sure I am home yet.

February 25th, 2008 by shaunas

I am in amsterdam for my debriefing.

That’s where you talk to all the people (well ok not ALL the people) in the MSF office about your mission.

I am in a daze. I can’t believe I am not in Congo anymore. It’s really cold here.

Yesterday I was in the hotel room and I was really thirsty but I didn’t
have any water with me and then I suddenly realized that I could just
fill a cup from the tap with perfectly good water that would not make
me sick.

Also I can walk down the street and not have to constantly look where I
am going for fear I will trip over random debris or sink into an abyss
of mud and rain.

Riding in the shuttle bus to get to the hotel felt like flying, the road was so smooth.

So far from DRC… So far.

We part only to meet again

February 23rd, 2008 by shaunas

This morning Maman Marie called me to say goodbye. I left Kilwa a little over three weeks ago, but today I am leaving DRC. She told me all the news of cholera and measles and other bits and pieces of Kilwa life…all the bits and pieces that have been my life for the last year. On Tuesday afternoon I will walk out of the Toronto airport and I am told I will find three feet of good Canadian snow to greet me. It’s more than thirty degrees here. I hope my mother is bringing my winter boots to the airport with her.

In a few weeks I will be back at work in a Canadian hospital, and I can honestly say it scares me. All the monitors and computer charts and sterile procedures are a world away from an oil lamp and an MSF handbook in the middle of nowhere. BUt I think, what scares me more is that all of this, everything that has been my life for the last year will just slip away into some distant collection of memories, almost like it never happened.

A friend told me yesterday that people who come to Congo once, always come back. I hope it’s true. I hope it is true because there is a part of me that cannot leave this place behind, and I would like to come back and find it some day, this part of myself, that cannot bear to leave this place, these people that I’ve grown to love, that have been my family, my friends, my life for the last year.

how time flies

February 20th, 2008 by shaunas

In a few short days I will be leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo. In some ways I feel as if I just got here, and yet almost an entire year has passed since I arrived here last March. I have learned so much from the people here, from this place. I think that the magnitude of my experiences will not settle upon me for some time. I will be back to work in just a few short weeks in a world that is so unbelievably far from this one and in all honesty I am just not sure how I will manage. But then I suppose I wasn’t sure how i would manage when I arrived.

Aurevoir Damien

January 31st, 2008 by shaunas

The space in which humanitarianism exists becomes smaller and more difficult to navigate each day and yet the needs of those for which this movement is designed to assist, to bear witness to, remain.

Damien was in DRC for his first mission before he went to Somalia.

He was the kind of person that you like instantly because he made everyone around him feel at ease. He never stopped smiling. He was kind. He was young. He was a friend to everyone. When you looked into his eyes you saw someone who was trully alive and enjoying every moment.

The loss of his life and the lives of the other MSF team members can only be described as tragic, horrific, inexcusible. 

Damien touched the lives of everyone he met and he will be very, very missed by everyone who knew him.

May those who knew him and those who loved him find comfort in knowing that although his time was cut much too short, the impact of his presence here, and everywhere he went, was profound and unforgettable.


January 28th, 2008 by shaunas

To all my faitful blog readers who have shared this journey with me…I promise to update you tomorrow…I arrived in Lubumbashi today for my end of mission…I haven’t had access to the internet since the Kilwa cafe got hit by lightening… which is why this page has been silent..but there is lots to share… Cheers

Homemade Bread and Ocean Tides

December 11th, 2007 by shaunas

I am in Tanzania on my last vacation before the end of my mission. I suppose it may seem like I am on vacation all the time, since I have written a lot about my vacations on this blog…or at least I have written a lot during my vacations.

And I guess that might be because there seem to be more moments during my vacation time where I actually have the energy and wherewithal to think…to reflect… to ponder… to sit in front of a computer and write something down which I feel is worthy of sharing… Something I have had little time for these days in my project…

I am nearing the end of my mission in DRC. At the end of January I will leave my project, here in Kilwa and go back to Canada. Most MSF first missions are nine months. I think there might be a good reason for that. I know that I am tired. Nine months is the time it takes to grow a human being. Nine months is a lifetime away from everyone and everything you know, from all that is familiar. I have been here for nearly 10 months now. I know that I am all kinds of tired. I know that I am looking forward to time away from here to think, to reflect, and to ponder, because I will not be able to absorb my time in Congo until I have left.

I know I am speaking about it like I have already left, but there will be six weeks left when I get back to Kilwa from here, and it will fly by. I have so much to do before I go.

Here in Tanzania I am contemplating the Ocean tide and homemade bread. I am wondering if people who were born beside the Ocean have the same feeling of awe and wonder when they look out at these waters. How is it possible that an entire Ocean just rolls away every morning and comes back home every night…? For a moment I wish I could roll away with the tide, wherever it is going, just out of curiosity… but I would only want to go if I knew it would bring me back home again.

In the place where I am staying they serve homemade bread in the morning with your coffee. It is almost the exact same recipe that my grandmother has made her whole life (the length of which I cannot disclose since I learned long ago that it is impolite to share a lady’s age). I wonder how a man in a village in Tanzania has my grandmother’s bread recipe… What an unlikely yet wonderful piece of home on the other side of the world. I wonder what small piece of my home in Kilwa I will suddenly discover when I get back to Canada… I hope it fills me with the same kind of comfort and reassurance that everything is as it should be. I wonder if my team is winning the battle against cholera…

Long-lost Outreach Nurse Reconnects with Blog Readers…

November 29th, 2007 by shaunas

So it has suddenly come to my attention that an entire month has gone by without any sign of life from this blog-o-mine.

I might suppose it is because I have been caught-up in the every-day life of my every-day life here in the DRC. I guess lately I am not quite sure what to write about. My life doesn’t seem as unusual or interesting as it did in the beginning. In some ways it feels as if I have always been here, doing the work that I am doing, living this life.

That and I have been in a cholera frenzy… cholera here, there and everywhere. But it is exactly in that frenzied state that I was struck with the overwhelming need to share an experience with as many people as possible.

Let me paint the picture for you…

You are in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo where there are very few paved roads and the main method of transportation is a bicycle…

There are no landline telephones or electricity to speak of…

You are driving along in your MSF land cruiser on your way to a cholera treatment centre to bring some supplies…

Along the way you try to take in all the beauty that is the lush green African countryside at the beginning of the rainy season…

The trees are full of bright yellow and red ripened mangoes…

Everything is covered in green…

Then you notice, from a distance, something quite unusual…

Something you cannot believe you are seeing…

You shout-out because you cannot contain your disbelief…


In the middle of the African Savannah

In a small village of mud brick houses…

Many, many kilometres from any significant body of water…

A boutique for Ladies Bathing suits which have been placed on display for any passers-by!!!

Oh yes my friends, I kid you not…

In all colours and styles…

If any one is interested I can get you a good deal.

I suppose I should probably stick to telling you stuff like how the day before yesterday we couldn’t get an IV on this little kid who had cholera and he was in shock so I cut a piece of IV tubing (I am not only an outreach nurse, I am also MacGyver) to make a nasogastric tube so we could try to fluid resuscitate him with oral rehydration solution in his tummy and it actually worked! He was transferred to the paediatric ward of the hospital today to be treated for malaria but otherwise he is doing really well.

That’s probably the kind of stuff I should write about… But I just had to tell you about the ladies bathing suits.

I will try to post a picture.

October 27th, 2007 by shaunas

The other day Augustin picked-up something that fell out of my bag. It was a small, oval, clear plastic stone with an angel inside, a gift from a dear friend from home for a safe voyage and mission in Congo. He was of course fascinated at how the angel got in there. Augustin told me that he didn’t believe angels had wings; that they were just like us, walking around, every day. He told me that he thought it must be the angel Michael, inside my plastic stone.

In my last entry I wrote about how I was going to be left in charge of the project for the week because I was the most senior person here. On Friday I sent the team to Mukupa where we have a Cholera outbreak and I stayed behind. When they got there they radioed me to say that there were already 19 new cases for the day, double of the day before, so I made the decision to call the car back while the team stayed behind to work, so that I could send more supplies and another nurse.

About forty-five minutes later I heard the driver call on the radio and I knew immediately by the sound of his voice that something was terribly wrong. When I called him back over the radio he told me he had been in an accident, that he was ok, but that three people had been killed. I don’t know how to describe the seconds, minutes, hours or days that have passed since this moment, the moment when everything changed for the family of the people who were killed in this horrible accident, for our driver, for our team, for our project. I don’t know how to describe the overwhelming sadness that has fallen-down upon me, upon us all.

I do know that it is impossible not to think of the «what ifs? » What if I hadn’t called the car to come back? What if the car had left five minutes later? What if there were never any people dying of cholera in Mukupa who needed our help to begin with? I know that if I keep thinking this way I will be unable to get past the overwhelming sadness. I know that no matter what the details of what happened, it is nobody’s fault, it was nobody’s intention for this to happen. The car was on its way back to save the lives of the cholera patients in Mukupa, patents like the little boy I found nearly dead on my last visit to the CTC, who was sitting up eating a cookie an hour after I miraculously found an IV and could re-hydrate him. There was no other decision to make, but it doesn’t make it easier or less sad.

I don’t know a lot about saints or angels, but I think I would like to side with Augustin and believe that they are walking amongst us. I looked up the significance of St. Michael, as I have long been a heathen and did not know anything about him. I discovered that he is representative of many, many things, but what stayed with me is that he is considered to be a great healer. Heathen or not, I pray that if angels do exist, they are walking amongst us, helping us all to heal the wounds left behind from this experience, helping us to continue to try to heal the wounds of Congo and its people.