People are People Wherever You Go.

I haven’t had the chance to just sit and write or perhaps have not allowed myself to sit and write. I can’t let time slip by and lose all those bright and inspiring reflections I have had over the last months and perhaps years.

How time has flown and life has changed. Taking on new roles and responsibilities has been a constant happening in my life and the road ahead of me seems to look about the same. Since starting my nursing career there has been constant learning and the feelings of incompetence daily. It’s been a battle jumping into a career where people depend on your expertise and knowledge but you yourself feel like you are still learning so much. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable but also desiring to strengthen your knowledge base to better help people. There have been many times where I’ve wanted to quite and choose a different path. My Dad reminded me when I was in a moment of self-doubt and failure that true success is going from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm. How hard it is to embrace failure and not lose enthusiasm for what’s next to come. I need to carry this attitude with me always since life will always have doses of failure along the road. If we close off our minds and let those thoughts seep in we will never reach our goals or see our true potential flourish. As much as nursing has had moments of failure and days where I have felt absolutely overwhelmed, exhausted and worn out, it also has been filled of incredibly joyful moments. Not only have I had the privilege to comfort those in some of their most painful and difficult moments but I also have learned so much through many of the patients I have cared for. I am always reminded of how much worse off so many people are in our city and that I have little to complain about. Working as a nurse has taught me a tremendous amount about people and the common thread of our humanity. We all have fears and insecurities as well as the inherent desire to do good in our world and to love others. Even when life is the darkest it has ever been, light can be found- with an incredible amount of hope, the haze and fog will lift! Patients and families with heavy burdens and facing enormous mountains to climb somehow find a small glimmer of hope and overcome it, which is incredible to see. A beautiful example of hope was a family who in the span of a year experienced loss that if I were to repeat it you would not even believe that all this could happen. For one, this mother found out she was pregnant with her fifth child but that her child was Trisomy 21. The ultrasound tech told her that 90% of parents abort when they find out their child has Down Syndrome. But this mother, she thought to herself, “I want to be that 10%!” And she was, she brought her “little peanut” into the world. But with much confliction, she felt alone in her decision and as she spent time in the NICU, her recently separated husband and herself battled whether they should put her up for adoption. In those next days as they cared and cuddled their baby something changed within them. This tiny baby renewed their hope, softened their hearts and gave them hope. I cannot fully express this beautiful experience and transformation in words but I felt privileged to be able to be a part of it.

The beauty I have seen since working as a nurse inspires me to continue to meet people where they’re at, hold no judgments and to truly listen to their needs. People are people wherever you go; if I work in a hospital in Calgary, a clinic in rural Nepal or Africa our human needs and longings are all the same. We desire to be seen as a “person,” not an “illness” or a “diagnosis.” We want to feel important and special and not just brushed by as another number or more work to “deal with.” What gets lost often in this profession is the purpose and reason we do what we do. We forget that we are trying to care for the patient, not our own “ego”, our “pride” or our satisfaction of knowing we did a good job. It is terribly easy to get into the motions of doing tasks and procedures that we forget that it is all for the patient’s well-being. It becomes more about “us” then about the patient and this terrifies me. The reason I went into this career was sparked by the intense and stark needs of the poor while travelling overseas and the power that healing touch has for people. It is a privilege to care for those who are vulnerable, sick, suffering and terribly afraid and this cannot be forgotten.

I have learned more than I ever imagined in this profession so far; The humility to accept my failures and weaknesses, the enthusiasm and courage to get up when I’ve fallen (after the hundredth time), the patience to listen and understand people from all walks of life, and much more. Most importantly though, my eyes have been opened to how we all desire to feel special and loved and that no matter how tough we look on the outside there is always that need of affirmative love and compassionate touch that goes a long way.

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To the roots…

I grabbed an overripe banana and my Ethiopian shawl and ran out into the cold December morning – the only month of the year where the morning temperature drops significantly- where I jumped into the waiting Land Rover and was off; off to explore the roots of Ethiopia and the birthplace of Orthodox Christianity in the rock-hewn churches of Geralta.

* The photo gallery below has descriptions of some of the photos which can only be seen when you select ‘permalink’ on the photo

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Healing Hands of Joy

Every woman has a story like a thread pulling, twisting and curving through a tapestry coming together to form a masterpiece for the eye to see. The women at the Healing Hands of Joy Centre  (http://www.healinghandsofjoy.com/) in Makale, Ethiopia, who have recovered from obstetric fistula (find out more at this website: http://www.fistulafoundation.org/whatisfistula/faqs.html) , have a tapestry that has many pulling threads and the eye can see the pain they have lived through. But looking beyond that the colours are startling and full of joy and enthusiasm. The stories of these women, seen in their deep and captivating gaze, are heart wrenching but at the same time overflowing with joy.

The enthusiasm of these women to go back to their villages as Safe Motherhood Ambassadors to inform other women about how to have safe deliveries and to break cultural stigmas against women with obstetric fistula. These women stay at the HHOJ centre for 1 month where they are taught maternal health skills and nutrition as well as literacy and communication skills. They also have psychological counseling available for them. In the photo above the women are showing their art work they produced during one of their art therapy courses. For most of them it was their first time to draw and do art and were quite talented considering. The focus on their faces as they hunched over their paper and drew their hearts out was so childlike and beautiful. Most of them were drawing traditional Ethiopian dresses and crosses and others coffee pots and shade trees. It really was beautiful to see.

I then began to listen to each woman, with the help of an interpretor, as they poured out their stories. The average age of these women were married at was 15 and the average age they had their first child was 16. One woman’s marriage was actually pre-arranged while she was still in her mother’s womb. Then at the age of 6 she was engaged to this man or let me say boy and then 6 years later they were married. When she found out she had developed obstretic fistula when she was 14 her husband divorced her immediately, which is the case for many women. In Ethiopia this is a frequent occurrence due to deep cultural and religious beliefs that women have been cursed from evil spirits. Women can be shunned from their communities from 5 years to as long as 20 years in isolation. Also for women to be transported from a remote village to a hospital to give birth being carried as a woman is culturally not acceptable. Less than 6 in 10 women in developing countries give birth with any trained professional, such as a midwife or a doctor; and when complications occur which is about 15% of all births there is no one available to treat them. One of the main causes of fistula, which is entirely preventable and treatable with the proper facilities and care, is poverty and the low status of women. The beautiful thing about the Healing Hands of Joy Centre, which is the only one of its kind in the world, is that the women are able to heal and start their lives again. They are given a second chance, one that will empower them through gaining income-generating skills and purpose to their lives.

As I listened to the women, the translator told me that they wanted me to share something with them. I was rather surprised by the question because what do I know about their situation or what kind of encouragement can I leave for them. So I spoke from my heart and told them how I see much light in them and courage and I have no doubt that when they finish at the Centre they will go back to their villages and empower other women and raise awareness and education about fistula. As I was sharing this message it came to my mind that today, December 8th, was the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It could not have been a more appropriate and beautiful feast to celebrate with these women who have suffered the loss of their children through childbirth and are here now recovering and healing from this pain and much more to start new. I shared this also with them which was immediately followed by three shriek-like bird calls which is the highest expression of joy here. I tried to imitate this shriek thing they did but only resulted in peels of laughter that filled the room. They shared with me their gratitude because for their lives to be acknowledged by someone does not happen often. For a foreigner to affirm their worth and their dignity was a real gift to them. I honestly did not give or share much but as I expressed in one of my previous posts to be truly present is worth much more than one thinks. I felt in that room not pain or sorrow but of an immensity of joy that could not be held in. Yes, the heart-wrenching stories of young lives lost and suffocated by cruel realities was ever present, but the hope seen in their eyes banished all darkness in sight.

“Enthusiasm was understood by the Greeks to mean “God within us.” And so it is that when we open ourselves to enthusiasm we receive something from above that makes us capable of achievements otherwise beyond our powers. Enthusiasm is the burning spirit within that says, “I can!” It is the indomitable “Yes!” without which nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished.” Royal Robbins

I hope that these women may be healed and strive towards ending obstetric fistula with courage and the enthusiasm to face the many challenges women have in their country. Change is already occurring through greater awareness and education and especially through these women ambassadors who truly have ‘God within them.’

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Ethiopia: The Birthplace Of Coffee And Much More…

I feel as though I have stepped back in time as I witness horses trotting along the cobblestone streets carrying heavy loads behind them while donkeys meander through the middle of the main roads. But wait, I actually really have stepped back in time: it is the year 2004 here in Ethiopia, according to the Julien calendar, although it really could be more like the 1900’s.

Ethiopia has its own unique flavour, and feel to it. It is not at all like anywhere I have been in Africa and feels more like the Middle East. There is constant Bollywood music coming from every stone house flooding the streets and a desert landscape with women and men wrapped in their cotton shawls walking through the dry dusty fields with their donkeys at their side. Their language, Armarhic, sounds very much like Arabic and the people here are tall which I have not experienced in Africa thus far – and which I appreciate very much haha.

As most of you know Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and it was the Italians who took it back with them to Europe. The Italians interestingly enough were actually defeated by the Ethiopians in the Battle of Adwa in 1896 and were kicked out of Ethiopia but today there is a large presence of Italians and of course their Italian necessities (i.e. Nutella, pasta, olive oil) can always be found here. In regards to coffee though, here in Ethiopia drinking coffee is not like in North America where you grab your to-go cup and rush out of the crowded caffeine addicted café and chug it down and feel completely bloated afterwards. In Ethiopia drinking coffee, the traditional way, can take up to 1.5 hours. The first traditional coffee ceremony I experienced was with a young 17-year-old sponsor student from Imagine 1 Day (the organization that my friend has been working for during the past year; check out their website for more information and the amazing work they are doing: http://www.imagine1day.org/ as well check out my friend Leigh’s blog to learn more about Mulu and her story: http://hkboyle.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/the-little-girl-who-could/). She invited myself, and one of the other girls who works for Imagine 1 Day, who ironically enough is also from Vancouver. I think it was Mulu, the young girl’s first time preparing a coffee ceremony so the coffee apparently wasn’t that good (this is what Sandy, the girl from Vancouver was telling me), but to me it tasted “different” lets say, or maybe just extremely strong. There are many steps to the coffee making which involve boiling water first, then toasting the coffee beans and then mashing them and then pouring the boiling water over the ground beans. Then the coffee mixture passes from the clay pot on the coals into a cup and is then inverted back and forth between the two for a while. Then at last it is ready. In Ethiopia the number three is very significant on a religious basis representing God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (the Trinity). Many things here are done three times including drinking coffee. The first cup, and the cups are small espresso sized cups – thank goodness -, you praise God the Father, then the Son and then the Holy Spirit. With the last cup you are also supposed to give your blessings to the person who prepared the coffee. With the coffee ceremony it is also a custom to eat popcorn with the coffee which I found really strange at first, but actually the two go together quite well. Mulu did a great job preparing the coffee but I do think she did not boil the water long enough because my stomach did not feel well at all after this.

One thing I enjoy about traveling is learning about different cultures and most particularly how people celebrate life’s moments. I love how people who barely know you will welcome you to sit down and have coffee with them, which does not mean a quick 15minutes but a full 1.5 hours. This openness to others and the appreciation of relationships is very present here and also in other parts of Africa and is something I will never lose admiration for. For we find the most freedom when we give of ourselves as a gift to others either with our time or talents. Freedom will take flight as we allow ourselves to open up to the grander possibilities of loving those around us.

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