We wrapped up our time in Labasa just in time to endure two cyclones in one week. If you remember, our first week in Fiji was greeted with category 5 cyclone Gita, so it was only appropriate to leave with a bang. The extensive flooding from the back-to-back cyclones broke the dam to the main reservoir of Labasa and shut off water the entire town. Our neighborhood had a separate waterline break prior to the dam catastrophe, so our water source was scarce for more than one week. Luckily the heavy rains made for easy water collection in our host family’s reservoir, which was barely enough for drinking, cooking, and “bathing.” Justin and I never travel without our water filters, even if we are in a first world country. This situation was not the first time they provided crucial safety measures, but I can confidently say we will continue to pack them on every trip!
Arriving to the main island of Fiji was bizarre, relieving, and culture shocking. There were white tourists everywhere, plenty of well established restaurants, tour companies, air conditioned buildings, you name it. I felt a weird sense of disconnect, like, do the people here know what is happening in the rest of the country? It was the exact effect that happens when I settle into routine in the United States. The weight of catastrophe happening in other places goes dim, because I’m focused on my immediate environment.
We recharged over the weekend and amped up for a week with an Australian medical team I had connected with online. The team was lead by a hand surgeon (Dr Meyers) and his wife who is a certified hand therapist. I was giddy with excitement to be invited to join their team for the week and get a closer look at hand injuries in Fiji. This was the tenth year the team came to Fiji, and I was told that every year is different, as it depends on the current needs.
The week unfolded with a Monday clinic that brought in a blitz of patients. I sat next to Dr Meyers during the clinic to help with recording patient records, which was the best seat in the house to see each diagnosis. Dr Meyers is wholly committed to teaching and took the time to explain his reasoning and diagnosis of each patient, while explaining how to read complicated x-rays, differential diagnostic tests, and much more. The injuries that walked into the clinic were complex and shocking. Patients had either received poor care prior to their arrival, or no care. There were patients with bone fractures months or years post-injury with severe contractures. Osteomyelitis seemed to be the norm. There were some cases similar to those I saw in Labasa, but I never had a chance to see it from the doctor’s perspective when the patient is initially seen. Often times patients are not even referred to physiotherapy, which is insane in itself because the patient has no guided rehab. This is one reason healing outcomes are poor in Fiji, and infection rates are sky high. Sanitation measures are practically nil, which I witnessed in Labasa. But observing surgery in Lautoka brought a new perspective of how serious the issue is, because it is the beginning of the chain.
Dr Meyers in his element, while I try to glean his wisdom and record patient intake at the same time.
I also got to use my OT skills for non-hand patients. The best part about this was feeling confident to incorporate yoga therapy techniques into interventions, which was well received by the patients.
I spent a lot of time under the wing of one of the physiotherapists with a specialty in hand therapy. He is brilliant with the rehab process and brought a slew of orthosis fabrication materials to use. The sight of thermoplastic had me jumping for joy, since this was not available in Labasa and I had been resorting to popsicle sticks and thick gauze for splints. A crowd of physiotherapy students joined the learning experience, which was a great benefit to the future of the Fiji healthcare system. Meanwhile, Dr Meyers always had a train of Fijian medical students following him along. Like I said, his team is dedicated to teaching the local students and practitioners while encouraging an interdisciplinary approach to healthcare. I had the chance to experience the surgical room, which had a handful of students huddled around Dr Meyers as he went through the procedure step-by-step, explaining the process.
One of my biggest takeaways from the experience was Dr Meyer’s reminder in the beginning of the week that we are taking away time from the local practitioners. Although advanced procedures that are sometimes life-saving are being performed, the time given to the Meyer’s team should not be taken for granted. Measures to give back to the community in every possible way were taken through medical care, education, and donated resources.
The experience with the Meyer’s team was rigorous and rewarding. It was the perfect way to cap off my residency while walking into a new chapter of my career. I have no doubt I will be back to Fiji to continue serving and working with a population that has grown near and dear to my heart.
This patient had a multiple traumatic injuries to the right side of his body and was using his (short) grandmother's crutch for walking. The Meyer's team brought a huge donation of crutches for the hospital, which made this patient very happy and comfortable.
Education! Teaching orthosis fabrication to the physiotherapy students.
There were multiple in-service lectures to the medical staff and physio students by Dr Meyers and the hand physio. This lecture I gave was on OT and global health.
Making my first ankle-foot orthosis for a plantar fasciitis patient- something an OT would probably not do in the United States because we largely focus on the upper extremity. Adding new tools to my back pocket!
Going into the surgical room!
Cast fabrication post-surgery. Eventually the cast will be removed and a lightweight thermoplast splint will be fabricated for the patient.
And that's a wrap! Huge thank you to the Lautoka Hospital and Meyers Hand team.
I’ve told the story before about Justin and I walking around a neighborhood outside of Labasa looking for a place to live for our remaining months in Fiji. The family we found barely skipped a beat when they invited us to stay with them. And I can’t imagine how odd we appeared – two white foreigners in a town without tourism, one in a wheelchair, casually perusing the outskirts of town. Their direct response to our inquiry for living space was “Sure, you can be our family.” What struck me the most about this family was they didn’t ask why I was in a wheelchair. Even as time has passed, they still don’t ask why I use it at times. That, to me, is respect at its finest.
I braced myself for the change of living with a family of 6 in tight quarters, sharing a bathroom and small kitchen area. As someone who craves alone time to recharge, I wondered if the experience would throttle me. But the transition was surprisingly seamless. Mutual respect, openness, and big love goes a long way. At first, I imagined there would also be cultural barriers, but as I have learned over again, the only barriers are those we throw up ourselves. A family with a dramatically different background and upbringing from Justin and I is all the same at the core. We share the same sarcastic humor, and their love for food and cooking offers ongoing conversation about a similar passion we hold. We pass leisure time together, with uplifting conversation and games with the kids. And there is a shared understanding that everyone needs space, you just have to be inventive with how you create that for yourself.
Angelina, the mother, has bent over backward to make us feel welcome. She does nonstop housework, always grabbing our dirty laundry before it makes it to the basket. Every morning she packs our lunch, and at the end of the work day we walk in the door to aromatic herbal tea and finger snacks. She caught on quickly to our way of eating. At first we were cooking separately to not burden them with our vegetarianism, but that lasted all of two days. Angelina began exchanging work and goods for vegetables around the neighborhood. Every day we eat greens, which I am forever grateful. Rakesh, the father, said they decided as a family to eat vegetarian while we are staying with them so that we can eat our meals together. I had an overwhelming amount of guilt and pleaded them not to change their way just for us, but he insisted. Justin and Rakesh make weekly grocery runs together to gather food for the week. It has been fun to watch them come back with new foods from the market and teach other our own ways of cooking.
I have contemplated our scenario if Justin and I were to be on the other end. I imagine it in my head - Justin and I are in our apartment in Arizona, and a foreign couple is walking around the premises asking for a place to live. What would I do? There are barriers when the apartment is being rented, because I know straight off the bat our complex doesn’t allow visitors for longer than two weeks. There is also a homeless population that wanders the neighborhood and sometimes uses the pool for bathing, which usually results in a call to the police and removal of the individual. But why should a homeless individual be any different from others? I get upset at myself for feeling this way. The societal norms have made me feel scared because of what is shown on the news and how things are exaggerated. We are taught to be scared of a world that holds less danger in reality.
But what if Justin and I were in a home we owned in the suburbs of Flagstaff, and a Fijian family was walking around town asking for a place to live temporarily. My immediate instinct is YES. But why does the city scenario, especially in a closed apartment complex, feel different? Why does it feel safer in small town? I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet, but I know societal norms are influencing me. I also know this scenario is still against the norm in Flagstaff or anywhere in the states for that matter. It’s almost as if I care less if fewer judgmental eyes are around me. To me, it all comes down to compassion and community, which is an important topic to contemplate. The United States has lost its sense of community over generations. Vulnerability is the key to connecting with others, and we miss an opportunity if we only open ourselves to relationships that appear to be normal like our own. Another component that makes our scenario possible is that Fiji is a gun-free nation. I know this might cause ruckus, but I strongly feel that this makes for a safe haven in many ways. Fiji's crime rate is nearly null. With the continual headlines in the United States of gun-related crimes, it is an amazing feeling to leave our home without any worry of gun-related crime.
It is hard for me to imagine leaving our Fijian family, because life with them has become routine. There is no way to predict when we will see them again, but I know it lies somewhere in our future.
I know what you are thinking, You are on a tropical island! How could that possibly be less than paradise? I got many comments before departing for residency on how I would be in paradise, and how lucky I was to be in a place like Fiji. I always paused for a minute, trying to figure out what the outside impression was of where I was going. I was not going to live in a resort on the beach… I was going to Fiji to bring services to marginalized populations. We are nowhere near the tourist track, or the beach. In fact, we have seen two other white people in this town since our arrival. The profile of Labasa was exactly what I was looking for regarding my residency, because it was an area of need without occupational therapy services, leaving lots of room for program development.
Although the lifestyle can be taxing in areas of need, the work is always intellectually stimulating. A lack of resources leads to great creativity. I have learned things about healthcare that never would have surfaced had I stayed in the United States. One example includes the discovery of a literature pool regarding the effectiveness of wound healing with banana leaf dressings. There is a shortage in wound dressings here in Fiji, particularly for the patients. There is no proper bandaging material available outside of town, so patients who travel hours to get to the hospital with a large abscess cannot safely change their bandages at home. This is a huge problem that leads to high rates of infection, and commonly amputation. My last educational lecture to the hospital staff focused on wound care, and I presented the findings from the studies that successfully used banana leaves and boiled potato peel for wound care. It was fascinating to listen to the discussion unfold with the staff and hear stories about what has been used in the past in Fiji and how things are changing. Big ideas don’t require fancy technology.
My experience working at the Labasa Hospital has truly forced me to step back and look at the big picture. As an aspiring type-A hand therapist, I find myself worrying about the elements of what is missing relative to my experience in the United States with hand therapy, because I have learned that evidence-driven interventions are most effective. I continue to remind myself that the way things are done in the states is not always relative to Fiji. Small gains in Fiji end up feeling like big rewards.
Now let’s talk about the beach. 5 weeks into Fiji and I still hadn’t seen the white sand beaches and blue ocean everyone raved about. I know, first world problems. I don’t want to give Labasa a bad rap, but Justin and I were ready to start exploring. Although Labasa can be rough living at time, the areas outside of town are dripping with heavenly beauty. Our first month in Fiji we stayed in town every weekend. I was working on my projects every Saturday, and we wanted to get oriented to our new home town. We also wanted to save money, because, student loans don't dwindle while in school. We gave ourselves a swift kick in the britches and got to planning some weekend excursions. My previous post highlighted our first getaway at Palm Lea Farm in Tambia. It was a short ride from Labasa (~30 min) and was a little slice of jungle paradise. But, the water on the north side of the island is murky and brown from the mangroves which is slightly nerve-wracking given there is a high concentration of bull sharks. Unless you can get on a boat out to the reef (which by the way, is the third largest reef in the world), brown water awaits you at the shore. I still can’t figure out why most people don’t venture out to the reef. After feeling like our batteries were recharged 110% at Palm Lea Farm, we decided it was worth our mental health to start taking weekend trips. We are nomads by nature and have never been the type to stay home when opportunities are at our fingertips. And working on a Saturday? I’ll be having no more of that.
Savusavu is a hidden gem in southern Vanua Levu. We hopped a 2-hour bus ride to arrive at the sight of the bluest ocean I have ever seen. The change of pace from Labasa was immediately palpable down to my heartbeat. This was the slow life I was looking for.
We chose Savusavu because of its convenience to Labasa. Reading about this sleepy beach town on travel sites sounded nice, but it was definitely downplayed. My first though upon arrival was – why aren’t people flipping out about this place? I just couldn’t believe how glorious everything felt. High hills of pristine greenery surrounded town and across the bay. And that insanely blue water with visibility down to the ocean floor made my heart sing. I suppose most people want luxury during vacation, which Savusavu lacks. It is a simple place, with a tiny strip-mall of local shops to cover basic necessities. There was a power outage on Saturday that lasted most of the day, but it didn’t bother us because we were out swimming and lounging until sunset. What Savusavu is missing in high-end creature comforts, it makes up for with jaw-dropping scenery.
And now, pictures of paradise.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.