After 19 weeks away, I’m finally headed home. Even though I’m well on my way, I feel like I haven’t really processed the fact that my time in Asia has come to an end. Denial, most likely.
For security reasons (that were probably unnecessary) I decided not to update my blog or any other social media with any work-specific details while I was in Bangladesh. The chance of something malicious happening due to anything I post or write would be small, as my online following is smaller still, but, I didn’t see the point in placing myself or anyone I was with at risk. So, if you are looking for a quick update, this might not be the post for you. Otherwise, settle in…
I’ll back up quite a bit. My medical volunteer project in Phnom Penh ended up being less than ideal. In hindsight, I made a mistake not choosing an organization that delt specifically with medical professionals. After about a 2 weeks at the hospital in Phnom Penh, I knew the experience there was not going to offer what I had hoped. I started wondering if I could find another volunteer assignment somewhere nearby that would be more ideal. About the same time, I recieved an email from a contact who periodically sends me postings for humanitarian work. The organization wanted a nurse to work for a month in a refugee camp. My intrest was piqued. I interviewed for 2 other positions in hospitals in Laos and Cambodia, and after much comtemplation and discussion, I decided to go where I could do the most good. Shout out to Patrick and Maddy for nudging me in the right direction.
Although the Cambodian hospital wasn’t that great, it led me to 2 wonderful experiences. If all had gone well in the Phnom Penh hospital, I would have never volunteered at the orphanage, and I would have never gone to Bangladesh. Combine those 2 experiences with Children’s Hospital Burn Camp last summer, and you have the most rewarding time I’ve spent alive.
So on December 17th I left Cambodia for Bangladesh. Landing in Dhaka was definitlely the biggest dose of culture shock I’ve ever experienced. I have never felt more like a foreigner. I didn’t see another white person from the time I boarded my plane until I got to the volunteer guest house the following day. Hostile looking men carried machine guns all around the airport. I checked into a hotel in Dhaka and spent one night before my flight out the following day to Cox’s Bazar. While checking out the next day, I noticed the hotel guest list sitting on the counter as I was checking out. There were 44 guests that night, and I was the only female. That remained a theme in Bangladesh; the presence is predominantly male, which was totally new to me. Though not unexpected.
While living in Cox’s Bazar for 5 weeks, I volunteered with Medical Teams International’s emergency response team in assisting the Rohingya refugees.
Quick back story if you don’t know who the Rohingya are. Rohingyas are Muslims who live in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. They have been persecuted for decades, denied citizenship, and thus access to healthcare, education, and basic human rights, despite the fact that they are native to Mynamar. Large numbers of Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. However, tensions rose in August when the Myanmar military attacked the Rohingyas, killing, raping, and razing their villages to the ground. Since August, approx 650,000 have crossed the boarder on foot, seeking safety and shelter in the camps around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Hence, the need for humanitarian assistance.
Every morning, a group of about 30 volunteers heads from the guest house in Cox’s Bazar to Kutapalong camp, which is about 1.5 hours south. After getting into camp, the van drops us at the end of the road, and we hike an easy 30 minutes to the primary health clinic. Thanks to drone footage on YouTube, I had an idea of the extensiveness of the camp. Had I not, I honestly don’t know that I would have been able to handle my first day there. For 30 minutes, you hike up and down through the camp, gaining different vantage points. For every bit of that 30 minute walk, no matter which direction you look, you are surrounded by 360 degree views of camp sprawling in every direction. Its unthinkably massive. I never saw the edge of camp. It’s nothing but bamboo and tarp huts crammed in next to each other, for as far as the eye can see, in every direction.
The primary health clinic was a true low resource environment. We could check vitals, do basic wound care, inhaler treatments, blood glucose, and malaria testing. That was it. No lab work, no radiology, no pain meds other than Tylenol and ibuprofen. Obviously, quite different than the emergency rooms I’m used to working in. The satellite clinics were even more limited. A clinic typically operated with a provider, an expat nurse, a local nurse, and an interpreter. Together we would see about 50-60 patients in 5 hours. Those were busy days, but the satellite clinics were my favorite places to work. I liked working out in the community, offering services to people who wouldn’t have been able to make the walk to the primary health clinic. I also enjoyed the learning opportunities there; when you work no more than 10 feet from the doctor, you’re bound to learn a lot.
I could write forever about how amazing the local Bangladeshi staff are. I built close friendships with many of the interpreters and had the privilege of overseeing the national nurses for a short period of time. Watching them develop over the weeks I was there will be one of my favorite memories. I watched 6 young women go from being supervised in their daily work to essentially running the clinic. Every morning we did a 2 minutes teaching session, usually given by one of the providers. On my last day, one of the local nurses, Jannat, gave the teaching presentation on how to properly collect a sputum specimen to rule out tuberculous. Sweety, one of the interpreters, aware that it was my last day, was standing close to me, resting her head on my shoulder. I stood there watching Jannat speak to her peers with a confidence that I don’t think she had 6 weeks ago. The combination of the love that I felt from Sweety and the pride I felt watching Jannat was a perfect way to start my last day.
I’ll leave this on a slightly positive note.
When I first got to camp, smiles were a rarity. The children were certainly friendly, smiling, waving, and practicing their English. But in my first few weeks, I only saw one adult male smile. I’m happy to say that by the time I left, adult males and females alike would sometimes smile when I interacted with them in the clinic, or even just walking to or from the van. There’s something about getting a smile from someone when you least expect it that brightens your day. Especially when they have so little to smile about. I always felt thankful that they were willing to share that intimate and brief moment of happiness with me.
It was hard to leave Bangladesh, just as it was hard to leave the orphanage in Cambodia. I feel like I could have offered so much more if only I were able to stay longer. I expect that my reassimilation into life in the US will be full of challanges. I already miss the friends that I made in Bangladesh, both with nationals and expats. Though I was there under 2 months, the feelings that I have for the people I lived and worked with are deep. I hold little hope that any of the nationals will ever be able to visit me in the states, so I hope to return to Bangladesh sooner rather than later.
Thanks for reading.