Author: RPCV Charlaine Loriston
I arrived in Guinea, West Africa, on December 1, 2016.
After feeling unfulfilled in corporate America as a specialist in nutrition, health, and wellness, a friend recommended that I apply to the Peace Corps for a more meaningful and impactful career. I applied and said to myself that if it’s meant to be, it will be. Within a year I left my job and was on my way to work as a health volunteer in a 2,700-person village in Guinea called, The District of Lyasando.
Immediately, I made strong and powerful bonds within this community. They reminded me so much of my relatives in Haiti that I was saved a great deal from the culture shock and anxiety I had been preparing to handle.
The village made me feel welcome, I fell in love with Lyasando very very quickly. I knew my purpose was not to change the world, but to really understand the systems and the culture that influenced the health behaviors and disease transmission within this specific community.
In Lyasando, I experienced true, unbridled happiness, to the point that even the animals and the nature that surrounded me filled my heart with a sense of joy and belonging in the community I had so quickly become enamored with. I saw hardship, I saw death, and I saw suffering, but I also saw happiness and richness in the smiles of the people. I knew very early on that I wanted to stay a third year in Lyasando to continue building on these relationships and to continue to make as much of an impact as I could.
But I was not able to fulfill this dream. On July 2, 2017, I was brutally ripped from this state of wonder and thrown into a physical, emotional, and bureaucratic nightmare after suffering tremendous injuries in a taxi accident.
I was on my way to meet up with other volunteers in Faranah, a larger village where we could buy out a taxi for us all to travel together. After 25-30 minutes of leaving my village that warm Sunday afternoon, and 5 minutes from my stop in Faranah, I heard a scream.
The next thing I knew we were flipped and rolling into a forested area. Eventually, we collided with a tree. I was partially ejected from the vehicle and hanging out of the side door, while pinned down by my ankles. Two other locals, the seat I originally sat on, and several hundred pound sacks of okra that had been in the back of the car had crashed forward and sideways onto my body. I had no idea of the extent of my injuries. At that moment I felt nothing. I thought I was okay. I was determined to remain calm and focus on my breathing and provided instructions to bystanders to help the others that were trapped in the car when we crashed. I pulled out my phone and called the first volunteer in my contacts-- that was the last phone call I made. No answer. I called the next volunteer and said, “I am about 5 minutes outside of Tindo on the way to Faranah. I’ve gotten into a car accident. Come get me, quick.” Then my phone was snatched from my hand as a man yelled at me in French to get off of my phone. After several attempts to free me from the vehicle, I was rushed to the rural hospital nearby. However, it was not properly outfitted to handle injuries as severe as mine.
I suffered a concussion, degloving head injury, broken jaw, and fractured teeth. There was a bulge in my cervical spine, and I had spinal lesions. I had no sensation in my legs, the left side of my body was damaged, particularly my knee. Adding insult to injury, I recently learned, after several months of severe pain, that I tore my rotator cuff in my right shoulder and I have a labral tear in my left hip.
At the scene of the incident, I recall feeling no pain. While I felt liquid flowing down my arms, I was convinced it was coming from a woman who was now on top of me. Despite my eyes proving otherwise. It wouldn’t register, until months later, that I was the one who was bleeding from the head. This was why my head required shaving. It was me that needed men to hold my lower and upper extremities down, while my head was sutured together without anesthesia. I would learn that the best they could do would be to stitch me up and wait till the following morning.
When my fellow volunteers contacted a Peace Corps Medical Officer, they were instructed to place me a cab and send me on the 8-10 hour journey from Faranah to the capital, Conakry. Those four volunteers advocated for me fiercely, screaming and cursing and demanding that I receive immediate care. Had it not been for them, I know I would not have survived.
The following morning, I was airlifted from the disused and dilapidated Faranah airport. After three days of trauma care in Conakry I was forced to walk up the steps of a plane to prove I was stable enough to survive the flight back to the U.S. On July 6th, I returned home to begin my long road to recovery. I had no idea that things could get even worse.
After the accident I was in very high spirits, I was confident that everything was going to be okay despite what I just went through.
The truth is, I really didn’t comprehend what happened to me and some days, I still don’t. Learning the extent of my injuries, feeling the pain, and experiencing the sleepless nights should be evidence enough that what I went through was as real as the family of goats that became my friends and chose my front stoop as their nightly place of rest. Instead, I feel like a fraud when I look in the mirror, smile, and have missing teeth. It is as if none of this is true. After all, I didn’t feel pain in the moment and I believed I was okay. My friend’s words, “I could see your skull,” and daily visits to doctors or emergency rooms still hadn't transmitted in my mind.
Shock takes many forms, manifesting in the moment of trauma, but also for months afterward. It's a constant battle and I am still coming to terms with what really happened.
Then, the nightmares started.
Just five days after returning to the U.S., I was discharged from my hospital. Sent home without any surgeries to remove foreign objects in my body or resolve a hematoma. I had been explicitly told I would not be discharged until my medical equipment was at my home. Yet, it took three days to get my medical equipment to my residence, meaning I was left without any support system. Most negligently, the discharge documents the hospital filled out when I was sent home claimed I walked out of the building in good condition and I did not require any physical therapy.
I was completely forgotten by that hospital. I was abandoned without physical therapy or any operations to improve my quality of life and begin the healing process. I was left to try to set up all my appointments with different specialists and was not getting timely or adequate responses. Peace Corps decided that it would be to my advantage to fly me to Washington, D.C. to receive proper treatment. On August 13th, I arrived in D.C. and have been here ever since. I miss my family back home.
While in D.C., I begged for counseling and was passed around to 3 therapists – starting over each time. As a result of this and the decline of my physical health, my frame of mind shifted from being very optimistic to developing PTSD, General Anxiety, and major insomnia. Everything just turned upside-down.
Normally, medical evacuation for volunteers is 45 days. In my case, however, I found myself living in a hotel in a foreign city receiving extensive medical care for four months and in November of 2017, I was medically separated from my Peace Corps service. The following day, my case was transferred to the Department of Labor (DOL) and I immediately applied for my Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA) Benefits. It took over a month before I received a response, during which time I had to stop all treatment and therapy until I was approved.
I contacted my assigned caseworker at the end of 2017 to get a better understanding of how to use the FECA benefits. To this day, I have yet to speak to her. I cannot even walk without pain. And I’m not getting answers.
A Light In The Dark
I received a phone call from a supervisor in the DOL in February. He said, "someone dropped the ball, your case was misclassified,” and that he would work on resolving the issue.
I have over 15 different diagnoses because of my accident. My case should have been considered a catastrophic case. However, because it was misclassified by the DOL, I experienced many delays in care and other important services, such as dental implants and root canals, were being denied.
On May 7, I learned that my case still had not been properly classified. I kept getting denied for a hip arthrogram MRI for nearly 2 months despite evidence from records in Guinea showing my complaints of hip pain, newly exacerbated symptoms, and letters from my orthopedic doctor. Thanks to Meisha Robinson and Jonathan Pearson at NPCA, Congressman Gerry Connolly became aware of my case and got involved. Then, I learned the case file hadn’t changed. Without NPCA and Congressman Connolly’s involvement, my case would have kept going unaddressed. I still would not have had even the most basic of surgeries, such as the removal of glass and foreign objects from my head. This was completed on June 13, 2018, nearly 2 weeks from the anniversary date of my accident.
My desire is to get better, and I am having to fight tooth and nail just to get access to basic care.
Every single day I have doctor’s appointments. Even though I’ve only been under their care since January, the Department of Labor is treating me as though I just want to milk the system. I’m only eight months into my FECA usage and I guess I’ve already become too expensive (at least this is what this feels like).
Early on in this case I became mute. When I saw what was happening to me, when no one was listening to me and telling me things like, “there was nothing in my head,” I became a hermit. I lost my voice. Once I began getting the care I needed to get better, I found my strength. I found my voice again when I met up with NPCA and the congressman’s office that very same week. I admit that after this meeting, I had extreme anxiety and questioned whether I had done the right thing. Thankfully, the result of my meeting proved I had no need to worry about standing up for myself.
Having the Peace Corps community come to my aid has been tremendously helpful in my physical and emotional recovery. Although I have been living apart from my family for the last year, I have a new family in D.C. Bob Vaughn and Kelly Woods-Vaughn, opened their house to me after their daughter Amanda Bostwick (who is currently serving in Guinea) asked for their assistance. Randy Adams and Mary Jo Smrekar have also served as a surrogate family and allowed me to stay with them. The entire Peace Corps Community in the Washington, DC area has been extremely supportive and I am grateful.
We Demand Change.
This has been hell.
I thought that by now I would be back in Guinea, maintaining those bonds I first made, seeing the people I came to love, and working hard to make an impact in Lyasando. All I want to do is go back and hug my kids again, but I’m just sitting here. The last thing that I said to them was, “N di na Juma,” which means I'll be back Friday. Friday never came though.
I can’t sleep. I’m in pain all the time. I am constantly making phone calls trying to get basic care. It is overwhelmingly exhausting.
It is ridiculous. Peace Corps Volunteers serve our country. We may not be soldiers, but we put ourselves on the line to make a difference. When we come back injured or ill, we deserve proper care.
It’s people like us, Peace Corps Volunteers, who make a difference in those communities in which we serve, and who change people’s perspectives on who Americans really are.
It’s people like us, Peace Corps Veterans, that help Americans be less ignorant about other cultures and belief systems that they may not understand.
More importantly, it is people like us, the Peace Corps Community who do not mind giving our lives to do something far beyond ourselves. We don’t deserve this, we don’t deserve this at all.
This cycle of mistreatment makes it impossible to begin healing. When we must constantly fight just to get an exam, find competent physicians, or when we have to wait for over a week for treatment when we’re in pain it only adds frustration and stress to an already injured body.
I have never been afraid to tell my story. The ordeal I have had to fight through for access to basic care was wrong, and it needs to change. It is for this reason that I became involved in with the advocacy group Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers.
No one should suffer like this, and that’s why we need to keep moving forward, demanding changes in legislation and ensuring that no volunteer or their family and friends ever have to go through this hell again.
SUPPORT YOUR COMMUNITY:
Write to your members of Congress urging final passage of Peace Corps health/safety legislation and adoption of the House version of the bill, while also noting more work needs to be done in the future to address the needs of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who come home with service-related illnesses or injuries.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the National Peace Corps Association or its members.
Charlaine Loriston served in Guinea 2016-2017. Her service abruptly ended after she was in a severe car accident. She currently resides in Reston, Virginia as she is recovering. She looks forward to being 100% healthy again and continuing her career in Global Health and program management. Charlaine hopes her story will inspire others to join her in advocating for health reform and safety for serving Peace Corps Volunteers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.