I only have eight days in London.

At work © Emily Wise

I have just returned from a grueling two weeks in Uganda for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, travelling the length and breadth of the country (over 2000km by car in eight days) visiting sleeping sickness treatment centres and control programs.

The trip was fraught with difficulties and now I’m home and those two weeks of working abroad seems like child’s play. Child’s play, because in eight days I leave for nine months in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan.

Four weeks ago I received an email from Brigitte in HR at MSF UK entitled ‘A possible interesting role for you?’ which was rapidly succeeded by my Googling ‘Pray tell, where is Uzbekistan???’

And now I have eight days to say goodbye to my family, friends and my partner of four years, Pete. Eight days to pretend I am finally going to finish a heap of overdue reports and papers and chapters. Eight days to pack for a climate that will range from -35°C in winter to +50°C in summer (when I possess the world’s most impractical wardrobe). Eight days to sort out all my subscriptions, prescriptions, vaccinations, visa applications, dentition, buy nine months supply of toiletries, sort out the mess that is my finances, remind the council to please fix my leaking roof, read everything ever published on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, meet with potential research collaborators,… I take a couple of deeps breaths. I tell myself ‘everything will be okay’.

What on Earth am I doing?

And then I remember. Twice whilst I was in Uganda, the distinctive MSF Toyota land-cruiser, adorned with MSF flag and stickers and no weapons logos and giant radio antenna zoomed past me and I got butterflies in my tummy. Knights in white-shining-T-shirts, heroically saving lives against the odds and whilst being jolly nice and morally upstanding all at the same time. ‘That’s going to be me in a few weeks’, I would think, nauseated with excitement. I’ve wanted to work for MSF for as long for as long as I have wanted to be a doctor. This will be the experience of a lifetime. I plug Nukus (the city in which I will be based) into my smart phone weather app: a balmy -2°C. I pull on my flimsy jacket and head to my nearest outdoors suppliers.

The following day I get an email from Jessica – an American doctor who by coincidence worked for MSF in Karakalpakstan five years earlier, with whom a mutual friend has put me in touch with: ‘You won’t be able to buy tampons locally for love nor money’. 30 minutes later I’m standing in the middle of an aisle in my local supermarket with so many toiletries in my basket that I can no longer pick it up. I look at the three litres of hair conditioner I’m planning on purchasing and tell myself ‘think more Paul Farmer and less Victoria Beckham’. The cashier doesn’t flicker an eyelid as he scans through the 280 tampons. I arrive home to an email from Johanna, the Swedish current MSF doctor from whom I take over: ‘Last winter there was ice on the inside of the windows and the ink in my pen froze so I couldn’t write.’ I put my coat back on and head back to the local outdoors shop for more supplies.

Nine months supplies © Emily Wise


That evening I’m sitting on the bathroom floor transferring a half-empty bottle of sun cream into another bottle of sun cream. Manufacturers are very inconsiderate for those of us who are frantically trying to pack as light and compact as possible and sell us bottles of product only half full. After three minutes there is more sun cream on my hands, face, trousers and floor than in either bottle. Both Pete and I have recently read ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography. I say to Pete that I feel like Sir Ranulph packing for an expedition. Pete points out that Sir Ranulph probably has people to decant his bottles of sun cream for him.

Pete tells me there are last minute plans for us to have supper at the house of Helen and Paul, good friends that live nearby. We set out and he receives a pre-planned and staged call saying that dinner is not yet ready and lets meet at their local pub to have a pre-dinner drink.

We enter the pub…


Friends from every stage of my life are there to send me off. They have come clutching useful and thoughtful gifts: an ereader, a Russian dictionary, books on the ‘Stans, a set of dominoes to befriend old men, a moleskin diary. Ant, a friend who spent a year working Kazakstan and whose emphatic stories about his time there convinced me to take the Uzbek mission, has carefully printed out key phrases in Russian for me:

My name is Emily

Menya zavut Emily

I am working as a doctor with MSF    

Ya rabotayu doctorum s Medecins Sans Frontieres

No I do not have a work permit    

Niet, u menya niet rabochniy rasresheniye

Oh, you are a police officer?

O, ti Polizeyski?

I am an intern with MSF

Ya prachazhu stazhirovku c Medicins Sans Frontieres

All my friends keep hugging me and say that they cannot believe I am going for so long and say that they are going to miss me, but they are so impressed and proud of me and I’m actually doing what everyone talks about doing but no-one actually does and that it will be the most amazing adventure… But I feel like they’re referring to someone else, surely this isn’t me they’re talking about? It just feels very surreal.

In the following days there are frantic last minute phone calls and meetings; visas, contracts and flights are sorted; copies of my passport and emergency contact numbers are circulated; goodbyes are said; and cheesy pictures of Pete and I hugging are printed for my new bedroom wall. It’s arranged that I will fly to Bonn for a week’s ‘Preparation Primary Departure Course’ before flying directly onto Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

And before you can say ‘independent and neutral humanitarian medical aid organisation’ I am at the check-in at Heathrow airport… Well here we go!

The world's heaviest bags © Emily Wise



This entry was posted in Doctor, Tuberculosis, Uzbekistan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Pre-departure

  1. Emily Wise says:

    My dears, such lovely comments, thank you! Means so much to know people are rooting for me out here!

  2. Ng Yi Min says:

    Good luck and wish you all the best, Emily!

  3. Sandra says:

    Great post, Emily. Safe travels!

  4. Fathema says:

    Welcome to MSF :) I am on my first mission too and I really enjoyed reading your post – you have such a great writing style. Good luck, keep writing.

  5. mitchell says:

    Hi Emily, It takes time to know Nukus, But you’ll be fine, just carry your humor and MSF spirit. Its a very interesting context.
    I was in Nukus for my first mission for 1 year, and very recently I came back from Kitgum in Uganda, I truly enjoy both my mission.And now as I pack my bags to leave for S Sudan tomorrow, your blog made me felt somewhere someone is experiencing the excitement and fear of going to unknown place. All the best.
    please convey my warm regards to all the MSF people back in Nukus.

  6. Farid says:

    I wish you very best of luck !

  7. Michele Montandon says:

    yea- was excited to see your blog post! enjoy your week with friends and pete, and look forward to hearing about your uzbek adventures.

  8. Mohamed Ismail says:

    Hi Emily,

    This for you a taste of Tashkent, Uzbekistan (one to show family and friends) who may worry, going off to a strange land.

    Wish you the best.


  9. mohamed says:

    Hi Emily,

    You will be just fine, Tashkent is a modern metropolis and so you will be able to get everything you require, after all half the population of the city was once european.

    Its like being in asia and at the sametime, a lot of the buildings look european, uzbekistan has a rich history.

    In the desert things maybe a bit different, but civilization is never to far away.

    The country is a lot different then even 5 years ago, i talk to people thete all time and there have been some great improvements lately.

    Enjoy Tashkent, Bukhara (vist shah naqshband) patron saint of Bukhara, has many followers in the west, UK, USA…Samarkand and Khiva.


  10. Alison Wong says:

    Reading your blog reminds me of my 1st mission with MSF in 2005, it was in Arua, Uganda for a HIV mission. It was also a 9-month mission . I remembered my field coordinator said to me at the beginning of my mission: you will gain more than you’ve contributed by the end of this mission. At that time, I thought what he said is such a cliche. But it turned out, he was right! Working for MSF was truly a great experience, I learned so much and felt like I was a sponge as a 1st missioner. So much things to absorb and to learn. I truly love the org. and I believe it is one of the very few that represents the true spirit of humanitarianism. Bon courage!

  11. deborah thompson says:

    Emily, What an adventure you have begun! I am a student nurse graduating in 2014, will be an RN after passing NCLEX, and I would very much like to be a part of the group some day. Your entry read like a letter from a dear friend. Thanks for sharing and Bonne Chance Mon Amie! Deb T

  12. Lindis Hurum says:

    Good luck! You have such a witty pen, I will make sure to follow your blog. Welcome in the MSF family. Hug from South Sudan

  13. abdi says:

    good luck in the first mission is amazing experience and fun

  14. erica says:

    Best of luck Emily! May you change lives, and in turn be changed yourself.

  15. Julie says:

    Loved this! Reminds me of packing to go into Peace Corps almost 30 years ago. Congratulations – what an adventure it will be. And I got tears in my eyes reading about your excitement – it is such a great organization, what a wonderful dream come true for you. Keep writing, I love to read this. Thanks and best wishes. Julie

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