Two worlds: coming home after an MSF assignment

Katharine is a doctor from the USA who has recently returned from Tanzania, where she was working in an MSF project for refugees. Here she blogs about transitioning from life on assignment to life at home...

peanut butter
The first time I came home from an MSF assignment – back to the USA after six months in South Sudan – my brain had a hard time integrating the two worlds. Paved roads, indoor plumbing, 24-hour electricity, air conditioning, fresh fruits imported from thousands of miles away, tap water that doesn’t give you parasites, and an endless selection of everything overwhelmed me for a while.
a row of different types of peanut butter

"An endless selection of everything overwhelmed me for a while."  Photo: Sparktography

I spent five minutes staring at the extensive selection of peanut butters at the supermarket: creamy, crunchy, organic, natural, honey roasted, dehydrated, mixed with jam, mixed with hazelnut, the same peanut butter packaged in three different jar sizes, and the fourth option of single serve to-go packs. In South Sudan, you were lucky to find one kind of peanut butter in Juba and forget finding it anywhere else. 

Fast forward a few years and the switch between Here and There isn’t as jarring as it once was. My brain usually separates my MSF life and my USA life into non-overlapping parallel worlds with rare, random, convergences. Three weeks after my return from Tanzania, the strangeness of This life hit me in the dentist’s office. Laying there in the spiffy electric dental chair, staring at overhead light while the dental hygienist scraped at my teeth with an extensive set of stainless steel instruments, I remembered a young woman who’d died at Nduta hospital. She’d had a bad tooth pulled by someone in the camp who provides tooth-pulling services. There’s no easy access to dentists in Nduta and people do what they can to relieve pain. She later developed a jaw infection, then an overwhelming systemic infection that took her life. All she needed was a dentist. 
There are a lot of needs like that in the world: if only he’d had effective medication to treat malaria; if only she’d had a skilled midwife to deliver her baby; If only he’d been vaccinated against tetanus... In so many places, those needs are just as inaccessible as indoor plumbing & 24-hour electricity. MSF doesn’t do dental care, but they meet so many other urgent needs that matter to people’s lives.