“Stay safe out there! I hear Mother Nature put you guys in the freezer.”
I chuckled at my friend’s humor. I couldn’t think of a more spot-on description.
I’m trapped in the house because of the much talked about “Boston blizzard.” It’s almost midnight, but outside everything looked eerily bright, illuminated by white, powdery dust falling from the sky. From my window, I looked at the top of a yellow fire hydrant on our street. It was surreal to see it disappear amid a mountain of snow right in front of our apartment.
I switched on the television to get the latest details about my first full-blown snow storm. Between reports about the shutting down of the subway, the implementation of the “no travel” rule and parking bans left and right, our local cable channel showed images of the city and surrounding suburbs drowning in snow. With all the empty roads, buried vehicles and shuttered houses, the city literally looked like it was ‘frozen’ in time.
“So.much.snow,” one of my co-fellows said in amazement.
“Tell me about it,” I replied, my face, an indescribable mix of fear and distress. I tried to concentrate on the safety announcements on TV, but found it very difficult because our old triple-decker shimmied every time strong winds clobbered its walls.
My co-fellows are well aware of how I have found the winter months to be extra challenging. Of the many things I did to prepare myself for my placement in Boston—from brushing up on health communications, researching on business development, and taking a crash course on the US health system and its challenges—dealing with such vicious weather is something I wasn’t ready for.
How I underestimated the effects winter would have on my poor, tropical body and psyche!
At one point, I broke out in hives because of the sudden drop in temperature and had to take antihistamines. Despite mastering the fetal position to fend off the cold, I still found myself losing sleep. On many days, I would wake up feeling tired, with my back and my joints cursing me. The accumulated exhaustion then began to affect my disposition. The dread of the commute back home, of having to wrap myself up a-la Michelin woman, and of doing everything all over again the next day, competed with my focus at work. It was a vicious cycle that I needed to break so that I could enjoy and make the most of my Fellowship.
And so I turned to some basic global health lessons I’ve learned to deal with my icy challenge.
1. Know your priorities.
There is a shared awareness among global health practitioners on the need to set priorities, knowing that it’s not possible to solve the world’s health problems and inequities all at the same time. With limited resources, we are constantly in search of the best approach that will yield maximum impact to better meet the needs of communities.
Yet in the beginning of my winter months in Boston, I nearly forgot about this. For instance, in figuring out how to use my limited resources, I decided against investing on a pair of sturdy snow boots (despite people’s advice). I thought that I could always double up my socks, use my rain boots and well, “just suck it up.” What a big (and painful) mistake. After walking on icy pavements as part of my commute, I had my taste of feeling what it’s like to become a human popsicle. When I got to the office because, despite the significantly warmer temperature, I still had no sensation in my feet for a scary few minutes. I should have known that scrimping on the basic essentials (priority!) is a big no-no.
2. Learn from the locals.
In global health, one cannot overstate the importance of understanding the local context and unlocking the power of local knowledge. Ignoring the local wisdom gained by the community through their own experiences is among the greatest faux pas a practitioner could make.
I guess I’ve always known about the importance of using a heavy-duty coat, cap, and gloves for the season. A month into my suffering, however, I discovered that there are other nifty tools that could help me get warm. I wouldn’t have known these if not for some local folks’ advice!
3. Proceed with caution.
Global health constantly emphasizes the significance of taking time to learn about your surroundings instead of obnoxiously barging into doing things. Oftentimes, taking shortcuts has its grave consequences. There really is much to be said about ‘going the extra mile’ to understand a problem.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I had sunk in snow or nearly slipped from black ice. I must admit that sheer laziness sometimes bars me from going the extra distance to take the shoveled, safer roads. These days though, I am more committed to walk on the side of caution, realizing how risky it is to wade through unknown paths. As they say, better safe than sorry.
4. Be humble enough to accept the things you cannot change.
Global health practitioners recognize that despite the important to plan and prepare, there are also things that are beyond one’s control. To thrive in the field, one must learn how to make the most out of the situation.
Take the weather, for instance. Because I know that no amount of whining could magically transform Boston’s cold winter (although it is quite comforting to rant about it every once in a while), I just try to focus on the things about it that I actually enjoy. There’s no point resisting nature, might as well roll with it.
As I write this entry, the weather forecast warns Bostonians about an impending storm…again. For a minute, I was tempted to raise my right fist and shake it furiously in resistance. Instead, I just shrug and smile.
I have a few more weeks to go before being transferred from ‘winter’s freezer’ to ‘spring’s chiller,’ but at least I have the loveliest GHC co-fellows, colleagues and loved ones to keep me warm.