Confessions of an Unhealthy Health Volunteer

Let me start first off by saying: walking on crutches in Kyrgyzstan is hard. In fact, walking on crutches anywhere is hard, but – with the potholed sidewalks and uneven stairs of Bishkek facing me – it makes it feel even more daunting. But maybe I should back up. You don’t just end up on crutches and make proclamations on blogs about their difficulty. There’s an impetus to the crutch-wielding.

And it happened like this:

You might have remembered I went home. That I was lucky enough to afford a few weeks with family and friends, hopping around the United States and popping up at weddings and trivia nights and family barbecues. It was amazing, and I am incredibly grateful that I was able to put my Peace Corps service in perspective to what my life was at home, and what it would be in a year when I completed service in Kyrgyzstan. Perspective is good and, it turns out, daunting in its own way.

My trip home was full of good food and hugs (or awkward face-touching) of friends, surrounded by family, incessantly instagrammed, and brimming full of talk about what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and just how many sheep I encounter on a daily basis. (Despite my stories about them, it’s less than you might think.) Until suddenly it felt like I had been in America for a very long time, and it was time to come home. I packed my bag full of hot sauce and new shoes, and set out the door to come back to Bishkek and my life in Kyrgyzstan – both sad to leave and happy, ready, and excited to return home. The taxi to JFK was downstairs, waiting, and I was double-checking that all my zippers and snaps of my backpack were done-up.

And then I missed a stair.

I heard it before I felt it – the snapping and popping in my ankle – and immediately had this train of thought:

  1. Ow. Expletive. Ow.
  2. They’re not going to let me be a Volunteer with a broken ankle.
  3. There is absolutely no time to make it to a hospital before my flight leaves.
  4. Additional expletive.

Some might say my priorities are, perhaps, not in order. (Some might say I should swear less.) So I winced through the final steps to the street, fell into the cab, limped through security, and flew the 20+ hours home, willing my ankle to heal on its own. Thought number two is not unfounded – I have known or heard of Volunteers who are “medically separated” because of broken ankles or feet. (“Medical separation” is one of many forms of early termination of Peace Corps service, deeming a Volunteer no longer fit to serve due to a medical condition or extensive medical treatment.) And I wanted to be here. This place has, over the past 15 months, become home. My service is incredibly important to me, and my own stupid ankle was not going to stop me from achieving what I had come to Kyrgyzstan to achieve.

But it definitely slowed me down.

Now, almost two weeks after returning home to Bishkek, I’ve been trapped by a plaster cast running halfway up my right leg and by the semi-enforced, doctor-recommended rest in my third-floor apartment. The good news is that I don’t need corrective surgery (though it was on the table until just yesterday), that I’m healing on schedule, that I am not going home. The bad news is that I, impatient as always, cannot stand “resting,” that I’m stuck standing still as things go on around me.

My leg propped up on pillows and my fan inches from the edge of my bed, I’ve had a chance to catch up on bad television and great books – but also a lot of time to think. I’ve thought about how lucky I am to be here, at this point in time, to do good things and learn and grow and serve. That I am supported by the incredible community of Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in Kyrgyzstan – everything from bringing my groceries to washing my dishes to putting up with my cabin fever, sleepless nights, and general helplessness. That my Kyrgyz neighbors and colleagues have offered me food and love, and kind words like “Be careful with that leg, it is made of gold.” I’ve thought about the changes to the Peace Corps since I began my service in 2013, the impact I’ve made (or hope to have made) in my time in Kyrgyzstan, and what the next year will look like for me.

This setback, however temporary, will undoubtedly be one of my biggest struggles with my service. This lack of independence, being trapped in my apartment (and inside my own head), this feeling of stagnation – it’s harder than freezing winters and uncertainty at work and mastering a complicated language. It has made my transition back to Kyrgyzstan from my trip home more difficult, more isolating. Had I been missed? Coming back unhealthy made me feel like, even though I was ready to come back, to go back to work and start my second year of service strong, that I wasn’t ready. That I had fallen backwards, Sisyphus-style, and now forced to climb back up the mountains that dominate the Kyrgyz countryside, but hobbled with this injury and this doubt.

I want to be here, don’t doubt that. I want to continue to do important work in my community and for health promotion in this country. I want to continue to push myself, to meet the challenges of service, to give back to the community that has given me so much in the past fifteen months – not to mention the support and encouragement to heal up that I have received so I can get back to work.

And that’s what I am doing. Focusing on healing, focusing on the next year, and getting healthy so I can be a better Health Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. There’s work to do.

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