Saturday, November 15, 2014

Calculated Risks

When you think about the dangers a diplomat might face abroad, you probably think of places like Benghazi, or Baghdad.

And yes, with such a large part of our workforce serving in unaccompanied posts (places considered too dangerous to take your family) these days, you'd do well to remember that there are diplomats risking their lives in places like that, every day, representing America's interests overseas.

But there are other ways, smaller, less obvious, in which those diplomats - and their families - put their lives on the line, and we got a harsh reminder of that fact earlier this week.

I started to feel unwell last Saturday, the night of the Marine Ball. (No pictures this year, sorry - I don't know my fellow ballgoers well enough to ask if I can plaster their faces on my blog). I think it's because I was sitting under an air conditioning vent in a fairly skimpy dress, but who knows? By Sunday night, I'd lost my voice almost entirely, and so on Monday, I decided to give myself the day off. I put myself to bed with some tea and the last remaining episodes of season one of House of Cards.

I did, however, have to get up to take the dog for his occasional walks. Around noon, I got out of bed to do exactly that, and immediately noticed a nasty stench in the air. I shook my fist in the general direction of the construction site just across the road from my house, assuming they were responsible for the smell, and carried on with my walk.

Back at the house, my cough got worse and my head started to ache pretty badly, so I went right back to bed. It wasn't until late that evening that the voice of one of the Marines came on over the loudspeaker, telling everyone to get inside, close the windows and doors, and turn off the heating units.

It seems that the smell I'd been breathing in earlier was the result of some sort of chemical spill, somewhere in Moscow, but nobody knew exactly what it was, or where it was coming from. The Russian government blamed a specific factory. The factory management insisted all was well. People started nervously cracking Chernobyl jokes.

Well, who knows what it was, or where it came from? My guess is, we'll never learn the truth, but we all spent at least one day, maybe more, breathing in something toxic. Just yesterday, when the Russian government told everyone to stay inside again because of yet another unexplained air emergency, people both at the Embassy and out in the city at large got noticeably jittery. This is our health, after all, and when you can't get the facts, you have no way of knowing if you are at risk of developing some strange illness. You might never know if you're at risk - not until, years down the road, you contract some horrible rare disease and wonder to yourself, did it happen that day?

In my case, of course, I've got three years of Beijing air under my belt. I already gave an ear to Beijing, and it wouldn't be any big surprise if some day it turns out that I, or someone else in my family, or someone close to me, becomes critically ill because of those three years spent breathing Beijing air and eating Beijing food. I was already coughing when the chemicals were reportedly released here in Moscow, so it's not possible to say whether they contributed to this week's illness. But I do think about this stuff, all of the time. All of us serving overseas do. All of us know of "cancer clusters," groups of people who served at the same post at the same time and were all stricken with the same rare disease for no apparent reason. We all know it's possible. We all know it happens. But it's a calculated risk of sorts that we're taking when we move overseas. Sure, nasty stuff can happen to us as a direct result of our service, but does that mean we should all stay home?

Actually, the leading cause of death in the Foreign Service is typically car accidents, both because the roads overseas can be frighteningly bad and because the post-accident trauma care in most countries won't save your life: no lifeline flights, no nearby emergency rooms, no on-site ambulance care. You get in a bad crash overseas, and you may die. It happened to someone we served with in Jordan, a father of two. It happened to someone we served with in Moscow, also a dad. It happened to a mom we served with in Kazakhstan. It happens all the time. We just buckle our seat belts extra tight, say a little prayer, and drive where we need to drive. Most of us make it back safely. Those who don't are mourned worldwide.

I guess this nasty air situation has got me down this week. I worry for my kids, for myself, for my husband. But what to do? We live our lives, we explore our city, and me? I pray pretty much every day that my kids will stay healthy through it all. It's a calculated risk: I know they will grow so much and learn so much from the constant travel we do. Most days, then, I think it's a risk worth taking.

Most days.


Nicole said... [Reply]

I hope that you feel better soon. I have some of the same concerns- especially after serving in Moscow and and Yekterinburg- partially because of this, and partially because the water in Yekaterinburg had more uranium in it than allowed. I guess it's not much better here in Kyiv, where we're just a scant 80 kilometers from Chernobyl.

Donna said... [Reply]

@Nicole - the microwave thing has been talked about for years. Another unsolvable mystery, I guess. It is hard not to worry, isn't it?

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