The agony & the ecsta… well anyway, the agony

Mark sets off for Yemen with a few hiccups on his way. 

I made it safely to Aden. Unfortunately, my luggage made it safely to Frankfurt. Not really a surprise, mind you, seeing as A) I flew Air Canada, B) I had less than 90 minutes scheduled between flights in Frankfurt, and C) it is WINTER in Calgary and we pushed off an hour late with the winter storm and plane de-icing procedures. On the up-side, I would much rather have my luggage stranded en route than my person.

Calgary at departure © Mark Kostash

Calgary at departure © Mark Kostash

After final packing and cleaning up, I left my house in Calgary for the airport at 1:30 Friday afternoon. Traffic on the new ring road was light but the repeated episodes of -20 to +10C with scattered snow every few days had made the roads treacherous. I was very early at the airport so it only took a few minutes to sign in and drop off my suitcase.

The unexpectedly kind agent even waved the overage fee on my luggage (I usually bring over 10 kg of snacks, treats and toys for the Expats and paediatric patients and I can’t pack “light” to safe my life). All three airlines I was traveling on were affiliated so I was also able to pick my seat location and check my bag all the way to Aden (or, as autocorrect would have it, “all the way to Amanda”). In theory. Despite a slow trip through security (Calgary airport is renovating again and they were only running one line), I still had over three hours to relax and enjoy a meal. While the international flights are a bit better than the regional, I have learned the hard way that it is best to eat before any Air Canada flights – pretzels don’t stave off hunger very well on a ten-hour flight.

As some of you know, just after returning from our Rotary Club’s annual home-building (and Team Building) project last March, I managed to blow out a lumbar vertebral disk. Being an obsessive-compulsive doctor (is that redundant?), I always put in a 110% effort, so instead of a little sciatica I developed a foot-drop and bilateral back, hip and leg pain. Having a copy of the Y-chromosome, I am totally unprepared to deal with pain and suffering when it is my own. I had the pleasure to experience, first-hand, Canada’s exemplary Health Care System, including standby lists for scans, waiting lists for surgical consults and refusal of reimbursement for certain “nerve drugs”. Valium? No problem. Percocet or OxyContin? Here, take a bucketful. There is just the minor problem that I CAN’T TAKE THAT STUFF AND PRACTICE MEDICINE THE SAME WEEK.

At first, it looked like things were going to get better on their own, but alas, here is that 110% again. I’m managing on slightly sub-lethal (so far) doses of NSAIDs and the odd muscle relaxant; at least when I’m not working. Always wanting to stand out from the crowd, the usual pain with sitting and improvement with standing or walking is reversed for me. I can even bike, when the paths are free of snow and ice (but that’s another story). I debated for a long time whether I should go ahead with my annual MSF mission. In the end, I decided that I would feel no more miserable, suffering and neglected on mission than I would at home. Anyway, it’s only for a month.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we left the gate exactly an hour behind schedule. I inhaled another meal then washed down a sleeping pill. Not to put too fine a point on it, my back was killing me. Walking the three hundred metres through the airport followed an hour in the security line had made my hips feel like two motivated rats were burrowing in for the night. I popped another diclofenac and squirmed. Two hours later I was still wide awake and re-watching an old Batman film. I finally turned off the lights, put on a eye-shield and drifted off round about midnight. We made up a bit of time on the flight, but apparently still arrived in Frankfurt with less time than necessary to get my suitcase from Plane A to Plane B.

Suitcase © Mark Kostash

Suitcase © Mark Kostash

Istanbul airport was interesting. I was in an emergency row sans port-hole landing and it was too smokey on the ground to see much out the windows of the terminal. There were hundreds of flights but the departures board only displayed the last 50 or so (90 – 120 minutes in advance). Fortunately there were plenty of comfortable chairs and benches scattered throughout, so I spent two hours alternately reading and hobbling to the nearest display to determine which gate I needed. Making my way to Gate 311 was a trial, made no easier by the electric extended-cab golf carts whipping by with elderly and feeble passengers. One hand on the horn and the other on the steering wheel, moving far faster than on any golf course I have visited, I had visions of being hurled across the concourse for failing to move with due haste. Had I been able to figure out how to flag them down, I would have happily ridden along with the other old farts.

The remainder of my trip was uneventful, if rather long. I was met at the airport in Yemen by two of the National Staff, one of whom translated/cajoled/greased my way through Immigration. The guy working the baggage room at the airport had a paper with the tag number and location of my bag when I finally cleared Customs. I was promised my luggage the next day, without fail. Just under 30 hours after leaving my house, we pulled up to the security gate at the MSF-France Hospital, Aden. It was 5am local time and the sky was not beginning to lighten yet. The gate guards completed an inspection of the car’s undercarriage with a mirror on a stick before the gate was opened allowing us in.

I was met at the doors by our Logistician and she showed me the kitchen and a choice of bedrooms, instructing me to go to bed and not come out until I was rested (Read: speaking coherently). I complied, remerging at 11.

Bedroom in Yemen © Mark Kostash

So I’m here, I’m safe, and it’s sunny and 30C. What more could I ask?!

“The postings and views expressed here are mine alone, and do not necessarily represent the position of Medecins Sans Frontieres”.