Every love affair has a beginning. Robin Zappacosta began her romance with Africa over 15 years ago and her stories are fantastically inspiring. Captivated by her tales, we share how Africa became one of the great loves of her life.
Robin travels the globe for her career in the medical field. The entire globe, many times over. She always seems to be someplace else and those who love her, scramble for one-on-one time when she rests her head at home in the Tampa, Florida area. For such a seasoned traveler, it’s rather remarkable to hear Robin speak of Africa and how of all the places she’s been, to Robin, Africa is “home”.
Robin dreamed of Africa for all the reasons many of us do…the adventure, the animals, and perhaps one too many viewings of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s perfectly painted portrayals of grandeur, romance and fantastic khaki outfits in the movie “Out of Africa”.
Around the time of the September 11, World Trade Center attack, Robin was working as an ICU nurse. Having run into a doctor acquaintance who was in the US from Zambia, she mentioned she had always wanted to do mission work in Africa. She could volunteer to work with him while making an adventure out of it.
With all the turmoil surrounding the 9/11 attack, Robin’s friends weren’t excited about her going. She thought, “I’ll be in the middle of some poverty-stricken country that many don’t even know or care about. I’m probably safer than you.” So, throwing caution to the wind and after a long flight, she landed on African soil.
Robin recalls the doctor telling her how bad the internet and communication in Zambia was, so she was a bit worried he wouldn’t get the message to pick her up. Walking off the modern 747 and directly onto the tarmac where that epiphany “I’m home” moment occurred, she was first struck by how hot it was, and by the police officers with their very large guns. Robin says, “If there is anything I've learned in all my travels to Africa, it’s to keep your expectations low and have an open mind. Almost nothing will be what you expect. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always unexpected.” Fortunately, the doctor was there to greet her at the airport, welcoming her with news that she would be giving an address to doctors at a surgical conference. Surprise!
Surgical conference speech completed, Robin spent time working in the local hospital, teaching nurses how to properly use some of their equipment. Having arrived with all her modern sensibilities, she recounts a story about a woman on a ventilator, the tube down her throat allowing her to breathe.
In Robin’s own words…
We were preparing to remove the tube and I asked for the patients weaning parameters. The staff asked, “What are weaning parameters?” I explained that they’re tests demonstrating the patient can breathe on their own. Blood gases that measure the concentration of oxygen and CO2. Lung capacity. Things like that. They looked at me as if I were crazy and the nurse said calmly, “she’s awake, her tongue is pink and she’s responsive.” So out the tube came.
Thinking I was helping, I put on a pair of gloves (the HIV rate in Zambia at the time was close to 30%), and I proceeded to throw the tube in the trash. Chaos ensued. They were yelling and clearly upset with me. I didn’t understand what I did wrong.
Later, a physician pulled me aside showing me a bucket of bleach, saying something I’ll never forget. “I know you don’t understand. You come from a country where you have everything you need. But that’s not the way life is here. We have no choice but to soak this in bleach and re-use for another patient. We know the risks but this is our reality. We cannot always get supplies so we have a choice. Decontaminate and use it on the next patient or throw it away, with the risk we’ll run out. If we run out, the next patient who needs one will die.”
I have never looked at medicine the same. Africa changed me. For the better. It gave me a new appreciation for almost everything and a new perspective. I was told by a friend, who had been to Africa many times, “when you get to Africa, you will be bitten by a bug and you will have no choice but to return.” He was right. My love affair with Africa had begun.
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