Footloose and Fancy Free

Veronica blogs from the beginning of a new assignment in Jordan

I have been preparing for this trip for months, and yet somehow, my brain wasn’t ready. It is only now, as I close the taxi door, that it clicks – I am leaving again. I am excited for the adventure, nervous to be leaving my home, apprehensive about the unknown waiting for me in Irbid, Jordan.

Months ago, I blocked my patient panel at the public clinic where I work in New York City. I have been warning my patients that I won’t be available for six weeks. The staff at my clinic have been approaching me to chat, smiling and curious, supportive of my plan to work with MSF, yet maybe a little wondering if I am crazy. Some of them ask me if I will be safe. Others ask if I will have to cover my head, or will be allowed to wear the knee-length dresses I prefer to wear at work. I reassure them that I will be fine, that Jordan is pretty liberal, and that I probably won’t feel like wearing cute dresses in the field.

Everyone - the clinic staff, my friends, my Facebook friends, the residents I work with at NYU, my family – commend me for doing this. They are proud and happy that I am doing something good for the world.  I am too, and I appreciate their support, but I also feel a little funny when they congratulate me. I think it’s because I’m not doing MSF to be altruistic. In fact, my motives are a lot more selfish than it would seem.

Sure, I’m volunteering to make sacrifices to work and live in difficult conditions. And it’s true that not everyone would want to do it. And MSF is a truly good organisation, one that I have been consistently proud to work with.

But why am I doing this? I am doing it because I love it. Because, having worked abroad before, I am addicted.

I moved to Uganda in 2009 for a year to live and work, and I felt as if before that point, I had been living my life in black and white, and suddenly everything was in color. The work was difficult, but so much more exciting.

When I did a c-section, I really did save a life. Even a patient with a simple urinary tract infection was immensely grateful for my care, because they had so few options. The patients were so much sicker than they are at home, and I revelled in the challenge of using my wits to fix the problem without all the tools I normally have.

After Uganda, I did my first assignment with MSF in Aweil, South Sudan, and I felt the excitement all over again. In some ways, it was easier. MSF had better professional support, an excellent supply network, a solid safety system and a core of expats for me to live, work and relax with.

But in other ways it was much harder. South Sudan is an extremely hard place to live; I felt dirty, hot, and exhausted most of the time. Because of the security situation, we couldn’t interact much after work with the local community, and I missed the bond I had with my Ugandan roommates and friends, and longed to have the opportunity to form same bond with local South Sudanese. Nonetheless, it was an incredible experience that had an indelible impact on me.

That’s why I am going out with MSF again. While I really enjoy the connection I have with my patients in clinic, I miss the excitement of working abroad. I love to operate, to work on very sick patients, to bring them back from the brink of death. I love to be scared, to be challenged, even to be frustrated. For me, this isn’t a sacrifice; it’s a pleasure.

As I look around in the taxi, I take a deep breath and sit back. This is really real. In a few hours, I’ll be in Paris, getting briefed by the Operational Centre there. And in a few days, I’ll be in Jordan, trying out the little Arabic I learned in a crash course I took over the last two weeks (shout out to Chris, my hilarious Arabic instructor, who made sure I learned the 4 words I need: pain, blood, baby and push).

I have never been to the Middle East, and I know that this experience will be like no other experience I have had. Luckily, I am happiest with one foot outside my comfort zone, so I am looking forward to the challenge.  

Veronica wrote this post in December 2013. In January 2014, five our colleagues were taken in Syria and we had to suspend all communications around the conflict for their safety. Now, our staff are safe and back home with their families. We are publishing Veronica's blog, and others from Syria and surrounding countries, retrospectively as we feel their stories should be shared.