Wednesday, October 11, 2017

So, what do you do?

Every time I am at a party I dread the question, “So, what do you do?”

Because there’s no casual way of saying what I do.  My elevator pitch sounds like it should have Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. 

“I am trying to assess the burden of HIV in 13 African countries.” 

And when I try to be flippant and nonchalant I sound like an asshole.   

“Oh you know.  HIV.  In Africa.  With the babies.”

I'm like the person who kvetches about her period cramps when asked a hallway “How are you?”

I asked a few of my girlfriends who do similar work and they all feel exactly the same way.  One of them said she feels bad because she feels like they feel like she thinks she’s a saint.  Shefeelsliketheyfeellikeshethinksshe’s.  How’s that for some emotional censoring? 

I asked a male colleague if he feels awkward.   Apparently he puts “I save babies in Africa” in his Tinder profile.

I think what I do is cool.  I think I'm cool for doing it.  I do not think I am a saint.  Most of what I do is spreadsheets and conference calls and hoping that my teams will not lose another survey tablet that I have to report to the IRB.  But I’m doing what I love and hopefully helping people as well.  I just want to stop this self-imposed meekness when I explain what I do with my life.

Maybe the next time I walk into a party I’ll announce to the room “I am Chelsea, and I study HIV in Namibia!  With the babies!  I will take questions now.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

It Started With Outbreak

­­­­­When I was 10 years old, I saw the movie Outbreak.
This, is what I am going to do with my life.  I am going to wear the white suit and steal helicopters and write complicated formulas on the blackboard to teach all the health people things because I know science and I am from the CDC.  Besides, we don’t need another Alanis Morisette because we already have an Alanis Morisette and I can’t sing that great anyway.

I told my mother.

“Yes. We knew this.  You are going to be a doctor.”

Ok great, I would be a doctor and then save the people from the outbreaks.  Preferably in Africa because I think that’s where they are the sickest.  Also ‘cause I want to see a lion.

In high school, I took all the science classes, became valedictorian and told everyone I was going to join Doctors without Borders so that I could save the world.  After graduation, I took a peek at the Doctors without Borders website to see if maybe they would take me out of high school?  You never know, I did take AP Bio.  But no, apparently my dissection of a pig didn’t count as experience.  Ok, just checking.

I went to college and majored in biology.  In my spare time, I volunteered at a biochemistry lab.  Because Dustan Hoffman stole a helicopter but he also knew what he was doing in the lab.  I needed to know how science works from the bottom up.

Over spring break I volunteered at a mosquito laboratory in Vero Beach (NERD).  It was there that I put on my first full-body protection suit and went into a sealed room that contained the chikungunya virus.  The lab tech opened the airtight freezer.  It made a whooshing noise and smoke from the ice spilled out.  She showed me the tube with the virus, put it back in the freezer, and shooed me out of the room. 


Spring break ended, I was not tanner but was covered in mosquito bites.  I could not, at this point, get a boyfriend.

I ramped up my hours at the lab to include nights, weekends and the summer.  I heard from my lab friends that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was giving a grant for a student to go work at a lab studying Cholera in Kolkata, India.  Two months later I was in India.

Right next to the lab was a cholera clinic.  All day I saw grey people being carried inside.  The smell of diarrhea coming from the beds lingered on your nose hairs long after leaving.  I begged to be able to work there.

“No,” my boss said, politely, smiling and bobbing his head back and forth.  Subtext: “The last thing we need is to be responsible for this curly haired girl getting cholera.”

“Please,” I had persisted.  “I have come all the way to India; I do not want to stay behind a lab bench.”

I was 19, knew the chemistry and was ready to rid the world of cholera!

They allowed me to join a local doctor as he made his rounds in the nearby slum.  The poverty and devastation slapped me around and was exactly what I needed.

When the doctor took patient histories, it was my job to write down how many times the patients had cholera.  Not if they had cholera but how many times.  The doctor kept treating the cholera and the people of this slum kept contracting it.

“But who treats the root cause of the disease?  Makes sure their water is kept clean and stresses the importance of hand washing?”

“This,” the doctor said (drum roll) “is the role of the Epidemiologist” (gong). 

After 3 months I went back to school, continued studying, and in my senior year started applying to Public Health schools. 

When you first walk into the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health a large image projected 3 stories high shows the latest statistics of diseases and pictures of students installing mosquito nets. Omg, I was going to be that student.   It was my Mecca.  I learned about tropical diseases and how to purify a water source so that you wouldn’t get cholera.  And all of my new friends wanted to play with diseases too!  People (many people) came to my Outbreak themed party.  (There were syphilis cookies.)

I spent a year in rural Bangladesh doing my thesis.  It was the best year.  I learned the language, drove a motorcycle between rice paddies to the villages.  Got a taste of office work and submitted my first protocol to an ethical review board.  One of my coworkers died during childbirth.  The ethical review board took 6 months to approve my protocol.  I could see the urgency and could see how long it could take to affect change. 

I returned to finish classes and apply for jobs.  I applied to Doctors without Borders (which should really be called Doctors, Nurses, Epidemiologists and Logisticians without Borders).  I got through 3 rounds of the application process and was finally told “Not yet.  You need more experience.  Come back after a few more years of international work.”

I worked for the UN Foundation and helped people doing cool stuff talk to other people doing cool stuff.  AND THEN.  I was hired to lead a malaria study in Uganda! 

For 2 years I lived in Uganda and went around the country helping to conduct trainings, collect and analyze data.  I worked for the International Rescue Committee on a vaccine trial in Uganda and Ethiopia.  Maybe I could take time off the project and spend a week learning about outbreaks in the IRC refugee camps!  But the study grant ended and I had to look for a job again.

I am sitting at a desk in Ethiopia after a long day of supervising field workers go door to door interviewing people and testing them for HIV.  My face is a little sunburnt, my fingers smell like curry and my shoes are drying in the corner.  For a year and a half I have been helping to coordinate nationwide HIV surveys in Swaziland, Ethiopia and Namibia.  I am 28 years old and have been working in Public Health for the past 7 years.  I am still not Dustan Hoffman.  But tonight I started my application to Doctors without Borders.

I'm the little one on the right

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It Comes Back

I let the couch gasp for air as I finally got off of it to meet Chiara for dinner.  She picked me up in her car and we drove down the mountain and back up another one.  Chiara has been in Swaziland for 2 years now and we have grown close during my many visits.  Tonight we would join her friends at their cottage for dinner before heading out to a party.  The cottage was warm with beef stew and the bottles of delicious South African wine just made it warmer.  I immediately liked the women but when they brought out chocolate cake for dessert I knew I would marry them.

It was ok that we were roly from food and drink, because we only had to roll a few feet from the cottage to the party.  It was Swaziland Art night, Swarty, and bands from South Africa came to perform in the sunken living room of an empty mansion.  Every expat within a 100 mile radius heard the siren call of booze and music and packed in.  The mansion was meant for Airbnb guests and so it felt like we were children playing in an empty adult house, unchaperoned.   Anyone could pop behind the fully stocked bar and pretend to be bartender, making concoctions just like I used to do as a kid in the schoolyard.  But this time my drink was made of Jameson instead of mud and fancy berries instead of the leftover ketchup in the fridge.

I felt comfortable.  Besides knowing many people from my previous visits, it was so easy to lean back into that swaying feeling that comes from being more than 8,000 miles from home.  A feeling of freedom and recklessness and familiarity with the unfamiliar.  I love the small talk that happens seamlessly at an expat party but would make me feel like a douche anywhere else.

“Oh I just got in from Johannesburg.  You’re headed to Uganda?  Nice!   Say hi to my cat for me.”

We danced under a disco light (??) to songs that were popular 2 years ago.  We played in a sunken bathtub and slid around the kitchen.  I ran outside, to a hill on a mountain and called the boy. 


I’m happy that I’m here for 2 weeks but excited to go home to my sweet apartment in Harlem.  I never once regret not taking the job overseas.  I like my happy hour on Thursdays and my bagels on Saturday.  But when I get antsy in my cubicle and miss the freedom of distance, I know I’ll be going to Namibia next month, and Ethiopia after that, and then…who knows?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

New in Namibia

You can drive for hours without seeing anyone in Namibia.  A tumbleweed might literally cross in front of your car.  The capital Windhoek, is surrounded by tall, sandy mountains making the horizon look like Mars. 

I was in Namibia for work.  Helping to run a workshop to adapt materials for our nationwide HIV survey.  Unfortunately this meant I saw these mountains mostly from the window of my conference room.  I insisted that even though it made the projected materials a little harder to read, we have the windows open every day.  

Over lunches, I made friends with Frida, a Namibian woman who worked at the Ministry of Health.  One day at lunch, I bumped into a waiter and said “lo siento”.  Because I’m too old to be juggling all these languages and random ones just pop out.  (Most embarrassing is when I’m speaking to a taxi driver in Africa and I start wagging my head like I’m in India.  I’m confused.)  Frida turned to me “Tu hablas espanol?!”

During the Namibian War of Independence, children were smuggled out of the country to safety, many never to see their families again.  Frida’s boat went to Cuba.  Not knowing a word of English or Spanish, Frida and the other children spent the next 15 years growing up in Cuba. 

“Most of us are now back in Namibia.  Once a month we roast a big pig and dance salsa all night long.”

Frida is trying to get into the University of Michigan for a Masters Program.  I told her to tell her story and she’d be a shoo in.

On Friday night we all went out to for Namibia’s famous beef at Kapana.  We ducked under the large blue tarped area and pushed through the wall of smoke.  In the center of the large outdoor market were butchers using machetes to cut large pieces of the cow laid on the wooden tables in front of them.  The meat was  passed up front where men arranged the pieces on open grills.  The men called at you to come and try their beef.  Theirs is the tenderest.  I took a few pieces from their hands, chewed, deliberated, and decided on the best vendor.  

I gave the man the equivalent of 5 dollars, and he chopped up a section for us and slid it to the bottom of the grill.  Then me, my friends and the smoke stood around eating our pieces of the meat.  Large piles of salt, chile, and MSG were on pieces of cardboard next to the grills for dippings.  My coworker handed me a plastic bottle cut in half with a sloshing brown liquid in it.  “Dip it in this.”  It was like eating raw garbage.  He laughed.  Was cow bile.

After filled with beef and MSG, we sat in the back of the tarped market on plastic chairs.  A woman dipped a ladle in a bucket of swamp water (?) and poured us each a glass.  It  was a traditional fermented brew.  Slightly warm, it tasted like coconut water meets butter meets cholera.  I drank my whole damn cup. 

Super full, I said goodbye to everyone and told Frida I would bring her back some Cuban Coffee from Key West.  She laughed and said “get me into the University of Michigan.”
Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I do not Hear

It was a bright and crisp day at 9am when I first got to the clinic in rural Uganda.  A line was already wrapped around the single clinic room and women were resting in circles allowing their fat, naked babies to play in the middle. 

“Afoyo, hello!”

The kids laughed at the white lady speaking their language.  Today I would be looking over the record books to get a sense of how bad the most recent malaria epidemic had hit this village.

Just before greeting the nurse, a woman grabbed my arm. She was panicked and her nails dug in.

“I prayed, but nothing. Help me sistah docter.”

At first, I did not hear her.  So many people call out to me every day that I have become good at not hearing. 

She almost threw her little girl into my arms. The girl was too light and her eyes were glassy.  I was trying to explain that I am not a doctor, I am just a scientist studying malaria when, like a horror film, the little girl turned and I could see the back of her head had been eaten away by disease.  The pulpy flesh was rotting and covered in flies.  I gave the baby back to her mother, went into the bush, threw up, and then went into the clinic to count the cases of malaria.

I do not believe in god.  I pray again and again for strength of faith but I have heard no answer.  Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down through a microscope to hear the god above me.  I’m a scientist and thus a skeptic.  We’re taught to be wary of religion as it is unfounded in evidence (the only scripture of science.)  But there is a woman in front of me, just a baby herself, praying that her little girl doesn’t die.  How can I help her if I don’t understand her? School did not teach me what sustains people beyond the antibiotics.

It’s the big questions, the ones that catch in your throat, unasked, that are all around me in Uganda.  The questions about death and faith.  I’m terrified because if I fail to save you, you will not live on in another world.  I will be here, and you will be gone.  I am afraid that if I do not figure out a way to hear some god, I may not be able to continue doing this work.

Sometimes, usually when I’m lying in bed at night, I feel a tingling at the back of my head, and I have to reach up to feel if I’m whole. 
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Red Hook, Love and Basketball

I told her I grew up in Red Hook.  Which was only kind of true.  I grew up in Gravesend and Park Slope, in Red Hook, Key West, Gainesville.  But Red Hook, those were my formative years. 

We lived in this brick house at the end of Beard Street.  It’s still the house of my dreams.  Wooden staircases, restaurant stove, tin ceilings, fireplaces, an English garden.  This house could eat my 400sq foot studio for breakfast.

My mom worked at a nonprofit on Van Brundt street.  My other mom owned an international shipping company that worked out of the warehouse down the block.  My parents were heavily involved in the community and we went to city hall meetings to make sure the garbage dump wasn’t built in Red Hook.  We went on marches protesting that “DAMN DAIRY PLANT” down the block.  We built gardens on the waterfront and worked to restore  the old trolleys.  I was extremely helpful by bringing art into Red Hook by way of an outdoor performed modern dance to Let it Be. 

Not many of my school friends would visit me so I made friends on the block.  There were 2 apartment buildings across the street and I guess they didn’t have doorbells (??) because I would shout “Elissabeeeeth, Nelllsoooon” over and over until their mom opened the window and leaned out.

“Can Elisabeth come out to play?”

Then the two of us would call for Kris.  Oh my god Kris.  I looooooved Kris.  I spent hours looking out my window into his window wondering what he was doing.  Asking my magic eight ball if he and I would get married some day. 

“Krriiiiisss, can you come out to play?”

When the heavy door to his building squealed open my heart skipped a beat.  I bet if I heard that door today I would still catch my breath.  Then I’d hear the basketball dribbling on the concrete sidewalk.  Squeal of door, bounce of ball.  Those are the sounds love is made of.

“Hey,” he’d say and pass me the ball. 

“What’s up,” I’d say, and dribble the ball between my legs like a goddamn pro.  I was all curly hair and jammed fingers.  An 11 year old lover in baby blue Air Jordans.  (I scrubbed those beauties with my toothbrush once a week.)

We’d play until the sun set and then some.  We drew a square on the warehouse next to my house.  Hit it with your ball for a point.  (We once burned out a soda crate and tied it to a fence for a hoop.  But someone stole it…) Quick 10 point games, every man for himself.  Nelson sometimes joined us before he got too old to play on the block.  When no one could come out, I would play by myself, practicing bouncing the ball against the wall and catching the rebound for an ally-oop.  If I was going to join the WNBA and if Kris and I were going to live out my Love and Basketball fantasy, I had to start getting good.

When we weren’t playing basketball we were at the corner store buying candy.  None of that chocolate crap either.  We liked the hard stuff.  Pure  sugar packed into tubes that would turn our mouths blue or maybe a pack of sour straws that we smoked like cigarettes.  We  would  shake up soda bottles and leave them in the street for cars to run over.  Because. Hilarious. 

In the winter we crammed into the hallway and played monopoly.  Yelled at  people when they had to walk over our board to get to the stairs and messed up our house placement.  The hallway was dark but warm and thick with the comforting smell of Ecuadorian food.

If it was summer, we would lay our bellies on the sun warmed bricks in the garden and roll roly polys to see whose went farthest.  Or me and Elisabeth would draw a whole house out on a piece of paper and see where our slug babies would go.

“Look, yours is going into the bathroom!”

Elisabeth taught me all the Spanish words to the Macarena. 

We rigged a skateboard with a rope.  One sat, one ran, both fell.  Most of my scars are from those days.  But the trick was never to go inside.  Not for a band aid or to use the bathroom.  Because that’s when the parents would remember you existed and make you come in for the night.

Things changed after 9/11.  My mom took pictures of the towers burning from our roof.  My other mom lost her shipping business.  My parents went to 6 funerals.  The experience gave them pause.  They were tired of the New York rat race and wanted to slow down and live the life that New York collectively realized could be gone in seconds.  Within a few months, they sold our house, enrolled me into Key West High School and my sister into Montessouri.  3 months after that, my fifth generation Brooklyn family moved to Key West.

I stopped playing basketball at school because the nearest away game was an hour away.  I lost touch with Elisabeth and Nelson.  Kris and I, despite the magic 8 ball predictions, did not get married.   It was 7 years before I visited Red Hook again.  There is an Ikea now and a Fairway.  There are man buns in Sunny’s and a candy shop selling only chocolate.  My mother’s warehouse is owned by some artisanal artist brewing beer with wood or making wood with beer.  The English garden has no light anymore because of some crab shack minigolf monstrosity blocking the sun.  I passed my house and saw a blonde boy playing with his phone on my steps.  But I could still see Kris’s name written on the sidewalk from that time he wrote it in the wet cement with a stick.

I’m  back  in New York, living  in Harlem now.  It feels good to be back here.  My world weary body is ready for it.  I’ve lived in 5 different countries, 10 different cities.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say New York.  If I feel they’ll get me, I say Brooklyn.  But if I’m feeling real, I’ll say “I grew up in Red Hook.”

Red Hook: May 2001, Van Brundt Street.  Aunt is wearing Red Hook G.A.G (Groups Against Garbage) Shirt

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Tonight I went to celebrate the Shabbat at Zahara’s house.   A group of 20 people crowded into the living room, in chairs, on the floor, perched on end tables covered in books.  A  Visit Palestine poster was framed next to texts about the Torah and the window was open letting in the smells of the Dominican Chicharones from Broadway. We talked about queer activism, and the Torah, and what we were most proud of.  This is New York Pride week after all.  We sang ningunim, wordless songs, that felt like they have been sitting in my throat all week waiting to be heard.

The candle lit the wall with shadows as the room grew dark and our singing came to an end.  And in the dark I realized, I had caught my breath.

Because I have been running through this city breathing in short little spurts until events like Orlando knocked what little breath I had right out of me.  Days follow days without singing, having a real conversation, without being in the dark, without breathing.

Last week a man shot and killed 49 people.  This week the Britain left the EU.  Yesterday, I signed up  to campaign for Hillary because I’m damn scared. 

I could run away to another country again.  Pretend the world is bigger than it is.

But I’m tired.  And my feet hurt.  And I want to sing not shout..

I took a deep breath tonight because things were good enough to slow down.  But I think I might be holding that breath.  Rationing it.  Waiting for the next Orlando, around the corner, to leave me breathless again.