Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Life is what happens...

These curses we bare in life; the constant punches, these gaping holes… maybe they’re all just blessings, testaments to our strength, sprouts in new directions, part of the very plan in the first place...

I was supposed to come back to the States for a maximum of 45 days. The Peace Corps was “concerned” that I was “getting sick too much,” and forced me into a hiatus filled with what they hoped would be medical appointments and “rest.” Though the list of what I contracted during my 13 months in Uganda seems threatening, the reality is it wasn’t that bad-and for one reason alone: I, unlike so many others, had the privilege of treatment.

-Malaria three times. (Bringing my total count to four).
-Schistosomiasis/Bilharzia. (Snail eggs that burrow and reproduce, contracted from my bathing water).
-Intestinal worms. (No biggie, most people get “de-wormed” every three months anyway).
-Brucelosis (A disease primarily meant for cows).

I was constantly feeling sick, but that comes with the territory, and I was hesitant to go home in fear that the Peace Corps wouldn’t let me come back. The person in charge of my medical leave looked me in the eye and assured me that would not be the case.

After 45 days, and with the additions of a hiatal hernia, esophagitis, and gastritis to add to my fancy list, the Peace Corps board reviewing my case, like I thought they would, denied me permission to return to Uganda. They did however say that if I was medically cleared by then, I could have the chance to “reinstate after 3 months.”

I was devastated.

I had left with only a week’s notice. Needless to say, that was hardly enough time to organize my things, say goodbye to the people that had grown to be my community and get my projects in order. My only solace in leaving things the way they were... I would definitely be back. Leaving my girls was the hardest. They were understanding, but the guilt on my end was debilitating. Everyone else in their lives had left them, and here I was, doing the very same thing.

Coming home was an experience heavy enough on its own. People always warn you about the culture shock you’ll get when moving or traveling to “third world” countries. No one ever talks about how much harder the culture shock upon returning home is…

Everything seemed so fast to me. In the airport, people rushed by without acknowledging each other, fewer smiled, the toilet was filled with perfectly good drinking water, I spent too much money, stairs moved, there weren’t cockroaches everywhere, everything was pristine and crispy… It was hard now not to look at this Western life through the eyes of the people I had just been living amongst and working with. It was like privilege was barfing all around me, but no one knew they were sick. The atmosphere felt cold, rushed, scattered, illusionary…

Of course I took glory in reuniting with my family, and my friends. Living out there in a fishbowl, it was comfortable to now be at home, surrounded by the people I love… less alone. Though with guilt always hiding behind the curtains, I relished in taking baths, eating out, washing my clothes in a machine, watching mindless TV, walking around barefoot, driving a car, hanging out with friends... The list was endless really, as it seemed like each day was filled with once experienced, but entirely new adventures.

But I had just seen the world, the reality of suffering and pain, the aftermath of war… This place now seemed like Candy Land. Everything was exactly as I had left it… but me? I was completely different. I am still struggling to find out how I fit in.

I fell into a deep depression.

Two weeks after coming home, I found out my boyfriend had been cheating on me…

My depression worsened, and the hole I had fallen into felt like it was swallowing me up whole.

I felt stuck in my situation and didn’t know how to get out. Though in a pain of my own, I decided to focus on reinstating…

Then, on a cold night, the one following Christmas, my Dad had his heart attack.

I came home from the store after picking up the medication he needed after having an elective surgery that day, only to find my mom on the phone to the doctor, and my brother Adam (who was “randomly” visiting) trying to comfort my Dad. He was uncomfortable and in pain-which was to be expected after any surgery. It was only when he stopped responding to us that we knew something else was going on. The paramedics came and told us he was having a heart attack. Afraid, but hopeful, since we had experienced his first heart attack five years prior, we followed behind the ambulance to the Emergency room. Only a few minutes after our arrival, they put my mom, brother in I in what felt like a small jail cell, and told us just how serious it was...

It turns out that his right coronary artery was 100% blocked due to a complication with his surgery. It seems as though we had arrived just in time. The first visit to the cath lab was successful, but only an hour later, we go the news that it had happened a second time, and once again, one of his main two arteries was 100% blocked. They warned us about the dangers of going in again, and prepared us that they would not be able to a third time. We stayed up all night counting the seconds as they passed, each without a repeat episode. To the surprise of the doctors, and with the help of prayers from family and friends, in addition to his sheer will, my Dad survived that first night. And I've never felt more grateful. But we were not out of the woods yet. For the next ten days, Dad remained in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator in the ICU. Seeing him like that was a new kind of hell I had never experienced, and everything that I had been agonizing over for the past few weeks fell away into the abyss, as nothing else in the world seemed to matter. The experience brought my whole family closer together as Paul, Mandy, Alon, Adam, Robin, my Mom and I spent endless hours of the nights and days living in the ICU. I talked to him, much to the annoyance of the staff and some family members, for hours on end. I knew he could hear me, and I needed him to believe he was going to be okay.  When he started to squeeze our hands, we knew that his brain was okay, and after endless tests and a couple more procedures, learned that his lungs and kidneys were too. It seemed as though life had given all of us a second-or even third chance. My Dad woke up on the 2nd of January, and I have never felt so full of life in my entire life. Still high on drugs, he was making all of us laugh, and for the first time in a long time, it felt like everything was going to be okay. We left the hospital on January 8th, the day of my Mom’s 62nd birthday. When I think about the alternative outcome, I am brought to my knees with a gratitude that is immeasurable by words.

Today my Dad is still in cardiac rehabilitation, but has come farther in a shorter amount of time than anyone could have ever believed or expected. Since my Mom had to go back to work, I have become what they call the “primary caregiver." To me, I just feel lucky and privileged that I get to spend the days with my Dad, most of the time just me and him, going to doctor’s appointments and rehab, walking, eating, laughing and learning.

I still don’t know how I’m going to fit into this society, or what I’m going to do with myself once my Dad is fully recovered. I don’t know if I should go back to Uganda, get a job here, move to L.A. for a fresh start with my brother, or go back to school... I’m at a crossroads, a turning point in my life. I’m just now learning how to break down the walls I’ve wedged myself between, and see that maybe the path ahead of me is a multitude of paths, not the single one I’ve already mapped out for myself. I’ve always known what to do next. I’ve always known who I was and where I was going. Today, I’m not so sure. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe, today, all I need to do is be here.

And maybe that’s enough.

Update on the Girls:

Though it is definitely more difficult to do from here, I am still involved on a daily basis with the girl’s project. My sister in Uganda, who also cares deeply for Joyce, Sarah, Scovia, Grace, Melissa and Brenda, has taken on the role of being my Ugandan coordinator and counterpart. She takes care of the logistics over there, so I know the girls are in good hands. They also know that no matter where I am, I’m always here for them. They understand why I need to be home right now, and I hope they understand that the decision to come back in the first place was not mine to make, but in the end, seemed to happen-like many things in life, for a reason.


  1. Wow, Jenna. It seems you were brought back here in perfect timing. I'm grateful for everything you shared, just the raw truth. I can't imagine the itchiness and grief of all of these transitions, many painful, but I am excited for your next steps. You're right though - all you need to do is BE, here and now. And you're doing that beautifully. Sending my love. Jess

  2. Jenna, you never cease to amaze me. This post was so full of emotion for me as a reader, and I can only imagine the pain and heartache that you have had to feel with this being your reality. But, with that being said, you have also been blessed with so much joy;joy that you of all people deserve. Your dad is still with you, most importantly. Second, you were blessed with the opportunity to travel to a beautiful part of the world, where your magnificence was and always will be truly appreciated. No matter if you get to go back or not, you are making a difference in the lives of others...a lasting difference that will in turn, change the outcome of generations to come. Not very many people can say that, Jenna. You should be very proud of where you have been, where you are now, and where you will go in the future. You are an inspiration. Your quote, "It was hard now not to look at this Western life through the eyes of the people I had just been living amongst and working with. It was like privilege was barfing all around me, but no one knew they were sick," was so incredibly provocative. Your words force us Westerners to really challenge our way of thinking, which is something we should do more often. It takes a VERY special person to see the world through the lens that you do. As always, thank you for being you.

  3. Reading this from South Africa :) So so happy your dad is doing well and just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading your update. You are a really great writer!