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?