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 am an outdoor travel junkie with my doctorate in occupational therapy. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.