The loud knock on the door brought me stunning news. I had been expecting my two guests from Australia, who had arrived the previous day, to come for pancakes and coffee.
Renee-Claire and Vanda just arrived and anticipating a lovely two week vacation in Ethiopia!
The first afternoon we spent a lovely time absorbed in the wedding scene at the Ghion Hotel
Religious wedding ritual by the pool
During “wedding season” many affluent Ethiopian couples have their wedding photos taken in the beautiful hotel gardens and it is fun to see the parade of traditional and modern fashions.
That first evening Vanda and Renee-Claire met my VSO and Cuso colleagues at a dinner party and we spoke of our plans to visit Harar and tour the famous sites in the north. Renee-Claire was to hike in the Simien Mountains while Vanda and I relaxed by Lake Tana at Bahir Dar but that all changed overnight…
Suddenly I found myself racing across Addis by taxi to the Yekatit government hospital where the Veronika Hotel manager had transported them and then had dispatched a guest who spoke some English to tell me the news. En route, I called Dr Brian, a Cuso International volunteer to alert him something seemed to have gone terribly wrong. When I leapt out of the taxi I was so relieved to see Brian, Katharina, a VSO volunteer mid-wife and trained nurse from Sweden and Hanny, a Dutch volunteer’s partner already on the scene. Vanda lay on an emergency room bed having seizures, her daughter Renee-Claire by her side and everyone trying to assist. Dr Fekadu from Yekatit Hospital was doing exactly what was needed and Brian and Katharina began assisting while Hanny and I rushed to the hospital pharmacy to buy a prescribed pill. We quickly reached consensus that she needed to be moved to the private Myungsung Korean Hospital as soon as possible, so once she was stabilized, Renee-Claire and I careened across town with Vanda and an attendant in an ambulance, sirens wailing.
Dr Bereket greeted us at Emergency and professionally assessed the situation, ordering blood tests and determining that she needed a CT scan. Since the hospital scanner was broken, we crossed town again in another ambulance to a private clinic. The news was good – no signs of damage on the brain. But the seizures continued and we raced back to the Korean Hospital where Vanda was moved to the Intensive Care Unit.
Renee Claire spent a lot of time with the very helpful hospital finance manager Mr Lee
A visit to a pharmacy to fill a prescription
That first worrying night Renee-Claire joined several Ethiopians whose relatives were also in ICU in an overnight vigil, kindly befriended by Biruk who let her use his mobile to keep in touch with me and found her a gabi (traditional cotton blanket) to keep her warm.
Meanwhile, I got their belongings from the hotel and set up the small spare bedroom/bathroom in our compound that was fortunately vacant and my landlord had agreed they could use. The network of VSO volunteers mobilized to help; most had met Vanda and Renee-Claire the evening before at a dinner party and several texted to offer support. My neighbor Judy loaned me her folding cot to put beside the bed plus sheets and a pillow. My landlord offered to drive us around. His sister Adanech is a nurse at the Korean Hospital and was able to reassure us about what was going on throughout the time Vanda was hospitalized.
I had met Adanech months ago, she is my Landlord’s sister and regularly visits our compound when relatives gather on the weekend – here she cuddles a cousin’s baby, born last August! It feels great for me to have this family connection and support here!
Here I am with Biruk and Renee Claire. Biruk’s brother Teshale arrived at one point and invited us for coffee in the hospital canteen. He pulled a copy of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine out of his briefcase when he found out I was Canadian and started a conversation about neo-liberalism and Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. You just never know what surprises are in store in Ethiopia!
The lineup outside ICU where family members sit vigil day and night
When Vanda felt better she paid a visit to the ICU crowd…everyone was pleased she was feeling better
Mike and Anjeli, a husband/wife team of Canadian Cuso volunteer doctors texted me to say they would come to see Vanda the next morning. They met with Dr Tadesse in the ICU and reassured us that Vanda was getting the best care possible and that the doctors were doing exactly what they would have done back home. Dr Fisseha the internist also was following her case and on call at night.
A thank you visit to Dr Tadesse and a nurse in the ICU. Dr Tadesse is still in touch by email!
Vanda’s seizures lasted 12 hours on Monday and thankfully, by the time Mike and Anjeli saw her, she was recovering and had no more from then on. The puzzle of why this happened continued. Vanda spent 2 nights in ICU and then 2 more nights on a ward in a room with 4 other patients. The first night we were surprised to discover that a family member is expected to stay overnight watching the patient so Renee-Claire, exhausted as she was, sat vigil. The second night we hired Natneal from a private nursing company to stay with her.
Natneal the night nurse!
On Friday after lunch, we were at last able to bring Vanda back to my compound where she spent the rest of her Ethiopian “holiday” resting and recuperating. Our original plan to fly around Ethiopia to visit the tourist spots had long been abandoned and, while we talked of taking a small trip out of Addis by car, as the days went by, it just did not seem feasible to be too far away from medical care. Arrangements were made for Dr. Bereket to accompany them on the long two-flight journey back to Perth via Bangkok.
ER Doctor Bereket accompanied Vanda and Renee-Claire home to Australia and enjoyed meeting Vanda’s husband Peter and touring the Perth Aquarium and Zoo and King’s Park. He also had a city tour of Bangkok on their stopover en route!
Stopover in Bangkok between flights allowed time for a city tour
Touching a woma python!
In Perth Zoo with Koalas behind in the tree
The day Vanda was released from hospital was the start of 3 days of Timkat, the biggest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar. Luckily for us 2 churches were congregating in the football field two blocks from my house so we could easily partake in the festivities and Vanda was able to see some events and take rest in between.
Festive flags decorated the streets and processions from Ureal and St Michael’s churches made their way to the park with priests in colourful garments and sparkly umbrellas carrying the sacred Tabot, symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant to the park where it rested overnight before a return procession. In the early morning baptisms took place.
Priest and elaborate crosses and gowns
Tabot in procession back to the church
Early morning baptisms
Women selling grass and herbs for traditional coffee ceremonies
Donkeys grazing in my lane
On Saturday volunteers Hans and Katharina took Renee-Claire on a day hike to the Entoto Hills above Addis, encountering about 6 more Timkat processions along the way.
That afternoon, while Renee-Claire was on her hike, her mom napped on my bed and did not even hear this electrician on the roof above the bedroom. The power had been off for about 48 hours and he managed to restore it…we were not so lucky with the water which was off and on much of the time and did not have enough pressure for showers so we ended up boiling up pots of water for sponge baths during the rest of the visit…
Over the next 8 days Vanda rested and we made small excursions around Addis to see some sights. Volunteer friends invited us for dinner and we had some over as well. Low key and friendly, supportive affairs. Another VSO doctor, Jo was in Addis en route home to the UK after completing her year at Gondor Hospital, and kindly offered advice and reassurance to Vanda over coffee at my place.
Not the vacation that had been much anticipated but a unique experience to be sure! And despite the terrifying start to their time here, there were many memorable moments of kindness and compassion of Ethiopians and VSO/Cuso volunteers. To complete the picture here are some images of what else we saw beside the interiors of hospitals and ambulances…
The Ethnographic Museum at Addis Ababa University provides an outstanding overview of Ethiopian history and culture
Renee-Claire made friends quickly with Titi and Pico and I am sure if they could talk they would tell her they are missing her attention!
Ato Kifle and W/ro Almaz al dressed up for a wedding!
A visit to the 2nd oldest church in Addis, St Giorgis in Piazza was well worth the effort. A guided tour of the museum and church highlighted more history for us…
Playing with traditional musical instruments
Famous painting by Afewerk Tekle in the church
A visit and lunch stop at the oldest hotel in Ethiopia – the Taitu
The Taitu Hotel is a lovely place for a visit
Time for cake and makeato on the Good Times Restaurant and Bar balcony in Piazza. Nice to see Vanda looking more perky on the last couple of days…
Renee- Claire enjoys the good Ethiopian coffee and view
I imagine she won’t forget all our rides around Addis in these old blue and white taxis!
Typical scene back home – preparing chilis for berbere near my front door
The next day a visit to the beautiful Selassie Cathedral in Arat Kilo where Haile Selassie and Empress Menem are entombed and where the grave for recently deceased Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is under construction
British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst is also buried here
Detail from the small round church on the property
I was pleased that we were able to have lunch with my young friend Henok who managed time off from his medical studies at Black Lion Hospital and was able to accompany us to the Selassie Cathedral
Traditional woven baskets at the National Museum
A taste of Tej, honey wine served in special flasks, capped off our day of exploring
The last morning. landlady Almaz invited us for a traditional coffee ceremony and served her delicious tibs and firfir for breakfast
Kifle, Almaz, Etenu and Amazon join in the ceremony…and then we headed off to the NGO Bazaar for some last minute souvenir shopping
On their last day we met up with some of the volunteers who helped us. Dr Brian is the tallest one standing in front of Dr Anjeli. Katharina is on the left beside Hanny.
The good news is that the flights home were smooth and uneventful. Vanda’s doctors are still puzzling out the causes and the current theory is it may have been a reaction to the yellow fever vaccination she had 11 days prior to arrival in Ethiopia. While the whole experience was very shocking and frightening and it was such a disappointment that they did not experience the beauty of the Ethiopian countryside and the richness of the cultural sights, they did have an in-depth insight into the kindness and caring of Ethiopians that most tourists never know. So despite the dramatic turn of events, I hope they retain some good memories of the people they met here and that Renee-Claire will return to hike in the spectacular Simien Mountains some day soon.
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