In the spring of 2021, I spent three months in Tigray, Ethiopia. It changed me in ways I never would have expected.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 41 – No 10 – October 2022
As a new field worker with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), I was eager to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia. When Tigray entered into a civil war with the Ethiopian government in November 2020, invading troops drove tens of thousands of people from their homes. With the few possessions they could carry, these internally displaced people (IDPs) resettled in camps in cities in Eastern Tigray like Shire, where I was headed.
When I arrived in Shire, there was a sense of being in the eye of the storm. In front of our base, MSF staff and locals gathered in the afternoons to drink coffee and people-watch. But a short walk to the massive IDP camp down the street revealed a grim reality: thousands of people living in and around an abandoned school. As an on-site clinic supervisor, I worked alongside a talented and compassionate group of Ethiopian medical professionals treating patients with upper respiratory infections and diarrheal illness, as well as those with chronic conditions who couldn’t access medication.
The situation in Tigray destabilized as fighting flared over the following weeks. Our Ethiopian colleagues did not feel safe walking to work – they reported being harassed and sometimes assaulted. Tensions grew higher every day. One night, military troops entered several camps and abducted hundreds of Tigrayan men. Our patients were terrified.
Amidst all of this, something strange began to happen to me. About eight weeks into my time in Tigray, my right hand started to swell and ache. Day after day, the swelling and pain got worse until I was unable to use my hand for even simple tasks. A week later, I woke up with swelling and pain at the base of my right big toe. Next it was my left ankle, then my right elbow. I struggled to walk. One of my colleagues, a logistician, crafted a makeshift crutch from a tree branch. My resolve that I was “fine” gradually weakened, and I confronted reality: something was very wrong. My supervisor made the decision that I couldn’t. I had to return to the capital for medical assessment. I knew I would not be coming back.
One long, painful car ride later, I was on a plane back to Addis Ababa. Other joints began to swell and ache: my left hip, right sternoclavicular joint, and the small joints in my feet. At the same time, I grappled with overwhelming guilt and sadness at leaving my Ethiopian colleagues on such short notice. Compounding this grief was my awareness of the privilege I had as a foreigner to have access to the best possible health care when the people of Tigray had nothing.