Happiness is a deliberate choice

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

Showing off their freshly cleaned teeth

Before coming here—my first trip to Haiti—we had done so much reconnaissance (and I have already been to many places in the developing world) that I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I also knew that there would be many things that would come out of left field and surprise me. From experience, I knew that for the first couple of weeks everything would be new and exciting, and that after a few weeks there would be things about Haiti that were chronically frustrating and upsetting. In this case, corruption in the government, the behavior of many other non-profits that are here, and human greed top the list for things that upset me in Haiti. But this doesn’t discourage me at all—EVERYWHERE I have EVER been, including places I love and would live in or revisit in a second, has things that I don’t like: the traffic in L.A., the lack of mountains in Florida, the cold in Ireland, the rampant HIV in South Africa, government corruption in Mexico, the mosquitos in Botswana. After a few weeks here, yes, of course there are things about Haiti that I don’t like, but I don’t care. No place is perfect, but as much as the challenges to rebuild Haiti seem overwhelming, there are still people here who have not given up, and neither will we.

If I am miserable and unfulfilled in one place, I’ll be miserable and unfulfilled when I go somewhere else, but I am doing what I dreamed of doing, after having (as Sky puts it) “frankensteined together this project that came out of your own head and watched it accomplishing everything you hoped it would and more.” At age 34, I am watching my dream come to life despite naysayers and constant challenges, with many hands reaching out to us to help us along our way. From childhood my dream was to practice this kind of medicine—the kind of medicine I watched my dad practice when he took me on rounds at the hospital as a child, and saw him provide in the homes of his patients and on the side of the road at terrible car accidents in Topanga Canyon where we grew up.

When your life’s dream is being fulfilled before your eyes is very hard to be unhappy and negative. The most common comment we have gotten, hands down, from older people who have met us, is “It is so great that you are doing this now, while you are young. You will never have to look back and have regrets about things you wish you had done and the places you have seen.” And when I look back down the years, hopefully many years from now, I want my halls of time to be lined with the faces of people whose lives I have connected with, however briefly, and in whose lives I left some kind of positive impact.

Some faces, some patients stick in your mind. Some are joyous success stories, some are heartbreaking tragedies that haunt your dreams and lonely hours many years later, some are just so Hunter Tompson-esque that only he has the words to describe the surreal nature of lonely night on-call medicine in darkened hospitals in Dublin (severely sleep deprived and sitting in a little pool of bedside light with a McDonald’s cheeseburger cooling in my coat pocket and a patient with epilepsy insiting he ‘had that graveyard smell again’ while an older female patient with dementia was trying to climb into bed with a younger girl with severe learning disability across the dark ward) or the 11 year-old boy in a Haitian hill village (who turned out to have a nasty kidney infection that we treated) who dressed up and wandered down the mountain into our mobile clinic all on his own because he thought he should see a doctor. Meanwhile a (harmless) snake finds its way into the crowded patient waiting area and pandemonium erupts until it is clubbed to death with an entire church pew; out of nowhere someone hands me a single banana whle a guy behind the shack in which we set up our clinic whispers just one word over and over through the thatch behind my head: ‘viagra, viagra, viagra). Just another morning’s work. Noah deserves credit for the ‘Hunter Tompsom-esque’ adjective, since it is probably the most accurate possible summary of our daily experience in Floating Doctors.

I remember that sense of the surreal as a frequent companion a few years ago, back in the night wards of Irish hospitals. Sometimes, doing medicine for the elderly in Ireland, my face was the last thing a patient saw when family were unavailable (or unwilling) to be there as they were passing away. I sat many hours with patients through dark Irish nights so they would not have to make that last journey all alone, and I worked hard with the palliative care doctors to make sure they had the least possible pain, fear, and indignity in their passing. Their faces always stand out in my mind, and I am proud to have been able to provide them with even that small service. Before the priest, rabbi, imam, or other religious leader performs their duties towards newborn children, there is the doctor at the first moment of life to welcome another passenger to spaceship Earth. At the end, after the last rites and blessings have been said, again, there is the doctor to close the windows, tidy up and lock the doors for the last time. My profession puts me in the position of being able to serve at the very beginning (before, if you count practicing maternal health!), all during, and at the very, very end of people’s lives–and I love it. I am so grateful to everyone who made it possible; I could never have done it alone.

I have no illusions at all about being able to change all of Haiti and fix all its problems—but that is not my job. My job is to help as many people as I can with all the resources and creativity we can muster. I can’t control other human behavior—I learned from my dad that all I can do every day is to try and be loving and kind and to be of service, and even when I fail the sun rises again tomorow and I have another chance. That’s a great thing about life—no matter how many times we choose wrong, in the next moment we get a chance to choose right.

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