I just returned home from two years living and working as a physician in rural Rwanda.
Like the other times I have returned home from abroad, I welcome the familiarity of things. I love understanding the subtleties of language and knowing how to greet someone without seeming awkward. I like the hot showers and my spring mattress and the coffee shop on the corner.
But, inevitably I miss what has become my home away from home. This time, I miss the hospital on the terraced green hill-top in northern Rwanda.
As any returning exchange student can attest, the most common question you are asked upon returning home is: “How was it?” I struggle to come up with a few words or a phrase to sum up my last two years in Rwanda.
It was amazing and challenging and inspiring and tragic and beautiful and frustrating all at the same time. I want to tell you about the thousands of hills in northern Rwanda and the green and blue and purple hues that light them at sunset and the gorillas that play in their forests.
I want to tell you about the children who must never have been told that the yellow jerrycans of water they carry home every day are heavy because they lift them with such ease. I want to tell you about the women in their bright clothes balancing rainbow colored umbrellas and baskets of pineapples piled high upon their head all while climbing up and down impossibly steep mountain trails.
I also want to tell you about my patients. I want to tell you about the infants who would have died if that hospital was not there. They are now learning to coo and babble and crawl and toddle. I want to tell you about Alice and Axel and all of the other children who died despite our best efforts. They remind us to try harder. I want to tell you about the sorrow on a father’s face when he hears that there is nothing we can do for his son except control his pain as he dies. I want to tell you about the doctors and nurses I worked with who keep trying and keep learning in spite of these tragedies in hopes of saving more lives.
Instead, while those images and emotions and memories wash over me like a tidal wave, I tell you, “It was great.” And it was.
Editor’s Note: Vinograd returned to the United States in June, after working for two years at a hospital in Rwanda, helping to treat children in life-threatening situations. The only pediatric specialist serving an area of 400,000 people, she accompanied doctors to teach other doctors and nurses to improve the quality of care provided. Watch a video about her work.