As a newly sworn in Peace Corps volunteer about to get sent off to the tiny village (seriously, part of its name translates as “tiny”) that would be my home for two years, I was given a black plastic suitcase. It was full of Band-Aids, nuclear-grade prescription drugs, and a book called Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Healthcare Handbook. This text has been translated into over 100 languages, but the jury is still out on whether English is one of them. Yes, the tome The Journal of the American Medical Association once praised as “probably a useful stop-gap measure” would serve as doctor, nurse, and (in desperate times) entertainment center for the twenty-four months to come.
The book contained some very odd (or perhaps just oddly phrased) cures for conundrums like infant constipation and snake bite, but no helpful hints about how to deal with the insomnia, panic attacks, and hallucinations that I and many of my fellow volunteers suffered as side effects of Larium- our malaria prophylaxis. A Peace Corps buddy recently shared a news item about the ongoing problem of long-term side effects of Larium in U.S. military personnel, including PTSD. Active soldiers and vets are being encouraged to come forward with their stories (those who haven’t already made the headlines, that is). No one has asked Peace Corps volunteers yet. All I have to say to the CDC about that is: “Call me“.
I thought about that black plastic suitcase a lot this week as I muscled my way through seven rigorous days of Wilderness First Responder training. I learned how to respond to backcountry emergencies from a sprained ankle (NBD, here’s a splint made out of sticks, my fleece vest, and boot laces!) to an impaled object (Here’s an immobilizing donut I crafted using two clean hiking socks!). I can’t stop thinking about how handy many of these skills would have been during my Peace Corps stint in the Sahel.
At one point in my service, I sustained a severe burn from a motorcycle tailpipe that could have easily led to life-threatening infection. I once had a head-on collision with another cyclist in the pre-dawn hours on a remote dirt road, not to mention countless malnourished, dehydrated bike trips in search of food in neighboring villages (mine was too tiny for a market). I served as a one-woman UN for delegations of parasites, suffered Larium-induced nightmares that would have rattled Vincent Price (may he rest), and very nearly fried my brain with a delirious fever of 108, which I treated by wrapping myself in a wet sheet. The black plastic suitcase was an occasional help, mostly as storage to prevent the mice from ravaging my withered veggies. But mostly, where there was no doctor, there was just me, and the slender thread of common sense I tried to cling to despite the Larium.
The real gift of this past week is knowing that my students will not be solely reliant upon their own threads, slender or no, to survive what may befall them this semester. They may feel hurt, sick, scared, or all three, and they may be miles from a doctor, but they will not be alone. I’m not sure what will happen to all of this training when the shit hits the fan, but I’m counting on the sheer volume of it to leave at least some useful residue if the rest goes up in smoke. The density of this new knowledge makes me feel calmer, more capable even just sitting here at my computer. Eyeing the charger cord, stiff woven place mat, and cloth napkin folded up to my right, I start dreaming up frontcountry carpal tunnel splints in my head, and smile.