New assignment, new challenge!

How do MSF field staff prepare for a new assignment? The countdown is on for Brigitte...

For me, preparation for a field assignment always starts out the same. I think to myself, “I have two weeks before departure, I’m all good!” Pack the next 14 days with brunches, lunches, afternoon tea dates, suppers and post supper drink celebrations with friends and family that I won’t be able to see for the next 6-7 months.

One week before departure, with my daily calorie count well beyond Canada’s nutritional health guidelines, I think to myself, “Wow… I still have so much time! Maybe I should start to read the pre-departure files they’ve sent?” I start to head to the pharmacy and other stores to buy my “must have” products for the assignment. Around day five or four before departure I take out my suitcase to give me the inspiration to start to put stuff inside it. Packing seven months of a life into a single 23kg bag is both an art and a science!

Three days before departure I’m starting to feel the little twinge of reality. I’m actually leaving. I have my passport, visa, my flight ticket, the gifts I’m going to bring to the field… opps… nope, those aren’t purchased yet. Put that on the list of things to do along with the administrative tasks I have to accomplish for my health insurance, a leave from my other employer, my tax files etc. And oh yeah, that suitcase is still empty.

Two days before departure. I have actually read a few of the pre-departure documents the night before. The others I will save for the plane, I have more urgent things to do at the moment. The reality of the departure to Port-au-Prince and new field assignment is really starting to settle in now. My suitcase has a huge pile of preliminary items I hope to bring. It basically contains about eight different types of tea, seven months worth of toiletries, four puzzles, a pile of books (yes, I also have my electronic e-reader… but nothing beats flipping through actual pages of a book), six pairs of shoes and clothes for any occasion. I have a huge amount of prioritizing to do. I also have to run to the Apple store to try and fix a computer problem. That will be done tomorrow because now I’m stressed and need to go for a massage!

The stress steams from the regular pre-departure anxieties and but also from additional stressors particular to this assignment. I will be spending seven months in Port-au-Prince, Haiti as nursing director of a large obstetrical referral and neonatal care hospital “Centre de Référence et d’Urgence Obstetrical (CRUO)”. I have been to Haiti twice before, both times in 2010 post-earthquake with other organizations, and I loved the experiences. I’ll have a direct flight from Montreal and will be in the same time zone as home, something that’s so much more important than it sounds. I’ll be in the capital city instead of in an isolated village hours away from a city. Will have access to restaurants and well-stocked grocery stores. I also read in a pre-departure document that we occasionally have the chance to visit a beach or the mountains. So why should I have more fears and apprehensions about this assignment over the past ones?

Well… unfortunately, MSF had to make the very difficult decision to close a hospital which opened post 2010 earthquake to respond to complications of pregnancy to assist the Ministry of Health as the health system was decimated, that from March 2011-December 2017 saw over 119 000 women and admitted nearly 51 000  whom suffered from pregnancy related issues, in order to respond to other more pressing emergencies worldwide. Earlier this year it was announced that by October 2018 CRUO will no longer be accepting new patients and by October 31st we will be completely closed. When I would arrive the reduction of hospital beds and staff and closure process will have started.

I don’t have too much time to dwell as now I have one day before departure and I’m running all over the house, up and down the stairs to finish the laundry and print all necessary documents. Still have to mail a few of my administration letters… where are those envelopes? I have visited the Apple store twice, had lunch with my Grandmommy, made a few last minute phone calls. The pile of clothing has been slightly reduced, as has the tea. But everything fits in the one suitcase and it doesn’t feel THAT heavy. Now is the exhaustion, excitement, calm of the evening before. I fall asleep with the unknown of what is ahead. I have only ever worked in projects that were expanding and developing. This time around I will see the amount of beds in the hospital decrease, see less patients being admitted and know I’ll have to say goodbye to colleagues monthly. Many questions are running through my head: Am I ready or experienced enough for this much responsibility? What does the Haitian population think? How does the local staff feel? How will I emotionally be able to handle the stressors of the closure process? Will I overcome everything that is thrown at me?

I wake up early on the departure day to see it has snowed. Took my eyes a few moments to process the white coating over my little tulip sprouts outside. Montreal weather, always keeps us on our toes! My bag is packed, the pre-departure files are downloaded on my computer, my heart is full and whether I’m ready or not, CRUO here I come!