When adoptee and physical therapist Kayla Covert travels to Ethiopia as part of a medical mission trip, she discovers the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself.
We are constantly surrounded by privilege — the comfortable couch where we watch movies, the luxury cars that take us to work, and the gorgeous kitchens where we cook too much for Thanksgiving dinner. This realization came clear to me as I reflected upon my upbringing and current lifestyle. A Korean adoptee adopted through Holt International in 1988, I was raised by a kind and generous family in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. My childhood was filled with dance classes, soccer tournaments and homework that eventually produced a doctorate in physical therapy. I spent 28 years of my life enjoying every benefit that the middle class provided, including the ability to travel and explore other cities and countries.
Traveling nowadays has become a status symbol and, for the most part, a common way tobecome “cultured.” It’s easy to visit tourist attractions, lay on white sand beaches, or take big bus tours that offer you a front-seat glimpse of the country. While these trips can be rejuvenating and enlightening, they are not the kind of trips that shatter your reality and open your eyes to a completely different world.
Most of us will never visit countries that force us to confront our privilege. Poverty is real; it exists, and it’s not abstract. While we take for granted our ability to vote, access decent healthcare, and eat at a different restaurant every night, there are millions who sleep on dirt floors and walk several miles every day for water. This reality was never more vivid for me as it was on my recent trip to Ethiopia with Holt International.
Ethiopia is located on the Horn of Africa and often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization.” The roads are filled with more potholes than Swiss cheese and congested with small cars, large mini-vans that serve as buses, and emaciated cattle. Outside of the capital, Addis Ababa, families live in large stone or clay huts with colorful doors and straw roofs. It is a place where women, children and young men walk for miles to find a water source and use mules to carry water jugs back home for the day’s tasks. Ethiopia is a place where poverty becomes very real, but the beauty of this country lies in its rich history and the feeling of camaraderie that emanates from the people. Their willingness to help families, friends and strangers was astounding, and it reminded me of the more beautiful parts of human nature.
Our trip was one of service, both philanthropic and medical. Holt Ethiopia is staffed by an excellent team under the direction of Zerihun Gultie, who served as a guide and ringleader throughout our mission. We spent time touring the Holt Ethiopia office, visiting two orphanages that are supported through Holt programs, and learning about the adoption process in the country. Unfortunately, Ethiopia has recently suspended international adoptions, and is working to create an in-country domestic adoption program. As a result, many orphanages are suffering from overcrowding and lack of funds. The future of international adoption in Ethiopia is uncertain.
Our main goal on the trip was to offer guidance and assistance to the dedicated medical staff at Shinshicho Primary Hospital. The hospital, located about six hours south of Addis Ababa, was renovated and upgraded with financial assistance from Holt International and the government. It serves about 250,000 community members per year. The hospital is a large, three-story structure with an emergency room, HIV/AIDs clinic, pharmacy and laboratory, surgical ward, post-delivery suite, family planning and social services, and NICU. The third floor, fondly named after Holt board member and adoptive mom Dr. Rebecca Brandt, is filled with in-patient beds for patients who require overnight stays. The hospital itself is clean and organized, with large windows that overlook the town and countryside.
Our days were long, exhausting and immensely satisfying. We spent our time educating the doctors and nurses about emergency medicine, triage and care for the minimally conscious patient. My colleagues on the trip, Dr. Kim Brandt and Dr. Steve Lamb, taught the doctors how to apply and read an EKG machine (graciously donated by the Brandt family) and practiced on patients with cardiovascular impairments. We also brought five pulse oximetry monitors (donated by Americares) and educated the nursing staff on implications for use. As a physical therapist, I am expertly trained in the role of body mechanics and mobility; therefore, I shared my knowledge about safe and proper transfer of patients who need to be turned in bed or assisted to a sitting/standing position. The staff at SPH is compassionate and quick to learn new methods. The level of care they are able to provide with their resources is astounding.
The highlight of my trip was not found in a museum or on a guided tour. It was the genuine smile on each person’s face. This smile was everywhere; on the faces of adults and children alike. It was infectious and inspiring, and I know that my purpose on this trip was to find the true definition of happiness untouched by consumerism or driven by personal motivation. When Gandhi penned these words, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” I know that he was speaking of the euphoria that I was currently experiencing. I want to extend an endless amount of “Thank You’s” and hugs to the staff at Shinshicho Primary Hospital and Holt Ethiopia for their kindness, hospitality and for restoring my faith in humanity. I am looking forward to my next trip and hope to once again say “Selam” to my friends in Ethiopia.
Kayla Covert | Pittsburgh, PA
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