Thursday, May 12, 2016

I Get By with a Little Help from my Friends

When I wrote my last blog, "Only a Broken Spirit" on Tuesday, I was on a flight from Las Vegas to Chicago, the first leg of my return trip to Rwanda.  If any of you have read it you know it was raw and from my heart.  When I pressed send the plane was landing in Chicago and I wouldn't have internet again until almost 24 hours later after two more 9 hour flights and a 2+ hour drive to Musanze from the airport in Kigali.  

I didn't know what to expect.  Sometimes the raw truth is just a little too raw for most people.  It's not pretty.  It's vulnerable and messy.  The internet is a scary place. Perhaps that is why I wrote it and sent it knowing it would just have to be "out" there for 24 hours.  Generally one to two hundred people read any particular blog.  It's mostly for friends and family.  When I got back to my house in Rwanda I was shocked.  So many people had sent messages, love and support via Facebook, email and the blog.  I was completely blown away.  I am an introvert.  I know...shocking for someone who keeps a blog and works in marketing.  I swear, I really am.  I threw one of my lowest points out into my world and all that came back was love, care and concern.  Some of the love, care and concern from people I haven't spoken with in years but who told me they follow my journey.

Thank all who commented and messaged me.  Sometimes, in our darkest moments, we forget how many people do care as we tend to focus on all the people who don't.  

On Cinco de Mayo I was out with a bunch of my cycling friends in Vegas.  I had a moment (before two margaritas) when I was laughing hysterically and suddenly realizing how much fun I was having.  I had lost the art of just having some simple fun with friends.  Those moments have gotten fewer and farther between in Rwanda as my friends here are very much like me, workaholic do gooders who forget to do for themselves.  After seven years of leaving Las Vegas there are times, on my bike or with my cycling friends, that I feel like I've never left.  That's a good thing.

Cinco de Mayo with Gina & Ami and many more

I am a strong believer in a higher power, for me that's the Baby Jesus.  I need prayers.  I need to know I'm not alone and I have people in my corner even 10,000 miles away.  I know that now.

I promise to work more on taking care of myself so I can better care for the ones I love here so far away from the world I'm from.  I promise to take more trips and laugh more and remember why I fell in love with what I do.  I still expect it to evolve, it's time, but it will be the next adventure.

Paris a few years back for the Tour de France total goofy funness that week!

The Tour of Rwanda 2014...the first year we won.  

2015 we won again and it was truly one of the worst weeks of my life filled with stress, anxiety, sadness, anticipation and then finally little acknowledgment for all the work we had done.  I need to get back to that woman laughing on the car in November 2014.  

Seeing all the messages I received I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I'm not in this alone.  Thank you to all of you who made me believe again that what I do least to the friends and family who love me.  #teamisteam

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Only a Broken Spirit

A couple of days ago I posted a photo of myself sporting my 24-hour Holter.  A Holter is essentially a 24-hour (sometimes longer) EKG, which monitors your heart rhythms.  The goal is to see if there are any abnormalities throughout a normal day, as sometimes when you have an EKG in a hospital or doctor’s office, everything may appear fine in that moment.

Why was I wearing one?  Good question.

Several months ago, actually near the end of last year, I began having heart palpitations.  I told myself, “You’re just having a panic attack, stay calm.”  However, after ever increasing regularity it felt like it was something more.  I am familiar with panic attacks.  My first one came decades ago while driving with me pulling over on the side of the highway to wait it out.  The next one happened while I was still in my late 20’s.  I owned several Subway franchises and worked constantly.  It never seemed to end.  One morning I was short of breath and couldn’t raise my arm above my head.  I drove myself to the Emergency Room.  After x-rays and tests the doctor came in, patted me on the back and said, “You just need to relax and take a vacation.”

“Yeah….let me get right on that.”

And here I am again, 20 years later.  

My sister is a doctor and we have talked about my symptoms in depth.  I have no history of heart disease in my family.  I work out and I’m not overweight.  My blood pressure is normal and to all outward appearances I am the poster woman of good health.  

The month before I left Rwanda the heart palpitations, tingling hands and fingers, dizziness and my feeling of “oh shit, I’m going to die in Rwanda” continued.  Maybe there was something more going on?

I arrived back in the US on a Thursday and met with an internal medicine doctor on Monday.  Another EKG, another normal, however, she referred me to a cardiologist.  

On May 2nd I saw a cardiologist.  As cardiologists go he was a hoot!  Pakistani man, probably in his late 60’s/early 70’s who couldn’t seem to wrap his head around why I was living in Rwanda and how I could still be living there after 7 years.  He just kept shaking his head and asking why?

I asked him, “Where are you from?”


“Well there you go, you know what living in a third world country is like!” I laughed.

“That’s why I live in the US.”


He scheduled me for a stress test, an Echocardiogram and a 24 Hour Holter and fast tracked it all to make sure I could get everything done before I left.  The whole time he was working with the nurse to schedule it he kept laughing and telling everyone who was within earshot what I was doing in Rwanda.  

On Friday this past week I arrived at the Heart Center of Nevada for all my tests.  I had not had any anxiety, panic attacks or heart palpitations since leaving Rwanda.  I was beginning to feel like all of this was major overkill.  My sister simply reminded me it was best to get a clean bill of heart health so the next time I have a panic attack I could legitimately remind myself it wasn’t my heart but rather my brain which was having issues.

Last night I spoke with the nurse and she told me everything about my heart is fine and healthy.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  As I was about to hang up she told me, “Safe travels and please take care of yourself.”  Apparently everyone at Heart Center of Nevada seems to know my story.

Today I’m on the plane back.

Why all this anxiety?  

I read a quote the other day by Charles Bukowski, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

I love what I do but I really do not want to die for it.  The sad thing is, things have changed for me.  After the November walkout the week prior to the Tour of Rwanda last year I haven’t been the same.  I do not trust most of the riders.  When you pour your heart and soul into making someone’s life better and they turn around after seven years and give you a gigantic FU one begins to question the work and the commitment.  Because mentally I haven’t dealt with the fallout from that event, my body has begun forcing me to.

Some day I will tell the whole story of those four days and the 2015 Tour of Rwanda but not now.  It felt like my therapist was about to cry when I told her everything.  I guess I didn’t realize how much those days had changed me.  She was the only one who gave me permission to be angry, sad and hurt.  It was real.  It did happen.  It had a consequence.  It felt like it literally broke my heart.  As it turns out, my heart is healthy but my spirit is not.

Logically I understand the issues I face with the riders.  They have had very little education.  They come from incredibly poor backgrounds and they are survivalists.  Survivalists survive by any means possible including biting the hand that feeds them.  It does not make it any easier.  A couple of days ago I received an email from our coach.  He is hearing rumblings again of discontent.  

I cannot do this anymore.  I have no patience for empathy.  I surely don’t have the heart for it.  So, how will I deal?  Next.

You don’t want this opportunity?  Next.  

There are probably 3 million young men and women in this country who do.  Next.  No emotion.  No attachment.  You make the choice.  I am finished with feeling stressed and anxious.  I am taking back MY life and my sanity.

Things are changing. I told my friend I was riding with the other day that I feel it.  I love Africa and I love the world of cycling.  I love seeing how far we can take these young men and women. I hope to still work in this industry doing what I love. I do not know what the next chapter holds but I do know I’m open to it.  I will consider other options.  

I will be open to life after Team Rwanda because I will not let it kill me.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Nathan & Thinus...THIS Should Be Our World

Nathan Byukusenge, a 35 year old cyclist from Rwanda nearing the end of his career, is currently racing the Tour de France of mountain biking, the Cape Epic.

Nathan lost his father in the 1994 Genocide and spent months running for his life in the forests of Rwanda in the summer of 1994.  

The genocide dictated his past.

Cycling dictates his future.

Thinus Redelinghuys, a much younger South African, only 25, is Nathan's partner.

They had never met before a few days prior to the Cape Epic.

Thinus is a student and a cyclist.  

Their worlds could not be further apart.

The Cape Epic is a race where you and your partner race for 8 days never being more than 2 minutes apart.  You must finish together or be disqualified.  You cannot win alone.  Nathan and Thinus were featured in a "who to watch" report leading up to the Cape Epic.

After the Prologue, Nathan and Thinus were in 25th in the GC and 5th in Best African.  After Stage 1, a grueling 108km stage with 2,300m of climbing, they finished 28th GC and 8th Best African.  It was not an easy stage seeing even one of the top team members, Gert Heynes, pull out due to illness.  

The beauty of the Cape Epic is it tests your will, your fight, your determination.  It is most definitely not for the weak of heart.

For Nathan and Thinus it is a coming together of two people from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum to become one team, for one purpose for the next eight days.

This photo from today by Anthony Churchyard, should remind all of us of our responsibility to embrace differences...differences in language, country, color, ethnicity, economics....Nathan and Thinus couldn't be more different.

But today they are one....

To all the "haters" of the world, the people in the US who believe the "Trump" rhetoric, who disdain refugees, who do not accept people of other religions, color, ethnicity....internalize this photo.  

Thank you for all the love and help you have shown Nathan...Thinus, Joggie, Ruan, Max, Bronwen, Scott MTB, Cape Epic and the fans.  

#GoNathan #EmbraceDifferences #teamisteam

Thursday, February 25, 2016

48 Hours in Team Rwanda's World

I have written and said this countless times...

"Life in the US is like a small slightly wavy line of ups and downs."

Think this....
"Life in Rwanda is more like straight up and down.  You can have your best moments and your worst moments within minutes of each other all day long."

Think this....
Nothing exemplified my statement more than the 48+ hours spanning from Monday morning to Wednesday evening.

This is life within Team Rwanda....

Monday morning, after getting the team off to Morocco for the Continental Championships on Friday and regrouping and preparing for the new week of training camps with the team going to Cameroon, I decided to go for a ride.  I hadn't ridden in over a week.  When you run a cycling team there is no time to actual cycle.  I had seen Sterling, our coach, ride by my office window on the way out and thought, time to go.  

Riding alone for me in Rwanda is difficult as the crowds, people and bad drivers make for a not so relaxing few hours.  The complete opposite of what most cyclists derive from a ride. But it was election day so I figured the roads would be a bit quieter.  And they were.

11:30am....Seven miles out of town at the top of the first hill towards Gisenyi my phone rings.  I never answer my phone while riding and I never answer my phone if I don't recognize the number.  For some reason I answered the call.  A Rwandan woman told me her husband had taken one of our "team members" to the Musanze Hospital.  I'm kicking running through my mental rolodex of the riders coming from that direction.  Then she said, he's from California.  Sterling....

I call Simon, our Belgian coach and tell him to meet me at the hospital with the car.  I turn around and race back down the hill into town.  When I arrive Sterling is yelling for pain meds, the orderly and "doctor" are trying to assess the injuries.  We are in a disgustingly dirty room, with blood stained rags on the floor and Sterling laying on a not so clean table with swollen wrists, a continually swelling left ankle and a variety of scrapes and road rash. Of course, every single item needs to be paid for before they will do anything.  Pain meds, 3,000 RWF run to the pharmacy across the hospital grounds.  X-Rays?  Run to reception, stand in line, pay 16,000 RWF then they will X-Ray.  It's insane.  

I keep calling an American friend who is a doctor working at the hospital.  She's not there but says there are some Belgian doctors on the grounds.  I ask about the Belgian doctors and no one knows anything about them.  Ok....they are white, there are about 6 white people and over 300 Rwandans on the grounds.  We kind of stick out.  Nope...nothing.  They take X-rays, looks like broken bones, they put him on another dirty bed in another disgustingly dirty section of the ward and I'm trying to figure out where the Belgian doctors are.  No one, no doctors, no nurses, no one is doing anything.  Well, unless you count 7 nurses/orderlies texting and Facebooking in the nursing station across from Sterling.  I see the Belgians...I grab them and show them the X-rays and immediately they went to work talking to the insurance company and figuring out the best course of action.  The Belgian nurses start cleaning his wounds after spending 30 minutes looking for gauze and antibiotic wash and ointment.  

They redo the X-rays and he needs to get to another hospital, to Kigali.  He needs surgery.

The insurance company after numerous calls into the two hospitals cannot get an ambulance arranged to transport him.  

Sidebar....after 7 years of working with cyclists, breaking my own collarbone in Tanzania I have learned to stay calm and go into triage mode.  I don't show much emotion, outside of anger for the lack of ineptitude and sense of urgency.  I show no fear.  Looking at his situation....I had fear.  He needed to get to another hospital in another country.  

With the help of a angel of mercy Rwandan doctor not even on duty at the hospital I finally got all the transfer paperwork arranged to get Sterling to King Faisal in Kigali.  Then...the ambulance.  We're waiting...waiting, a patient in the ward is WAILING in pain, stressing Simon, Sterling and myself.  They couldn't give her pain meds because the family could not pay for pain meds.  At one point I said I would pay for her pain meds....the nurse laughed.  I almost slapped her.

Where is the ambulance?  I go out and see the doctor at the ambulance with the hood up.  He says, "I am doctor and mechanic.  The battery is dead and they cannot find the key to unlock the battery cage."   UGH....yes, in Africa we lock our batteries in our vehicles...theft. As people are running around trying to find the ONE person with the ONE key I realize the realities of the third world in which we live.

Another hour passes and finally, 8 hours after Sterling's accident he's on his way to King Faisal in Kigali.  I go home to pass out after dropping Simon off to grab dinner and drinks in town.

By this time I feel like my right eyeball is going to pop out of my head.  A friend in Kigali is meeting Sterling at the hospital, the insurance company is updated, I take two Tylenol PM and pass out about midnight.

5:00am (Tuesday)...I wake to numerous text messages.  I'm on the road of death to Kigali by 6:45 to hit King Faisal.  I grab our new English teacher/Development person/Tourism person who just arrived late Saturday night.  We might as well submit all her work permit info as this is day 3 of the 5 day window we have to do so.

8:30...changing money for Sterling's medical expenses at the Forex the Federation, grab Francine to go with Lacey to Immigration

9:30...drop them at Immigration head to King Faisal

10:00ish...I'm at Faisal...NOTHING has been done other than he's there with our dear friend, Martin, who met him there the night before.  There is one doctor I trust at King Faisal, Dr. Albert...he's out of the country.  Sterling and Martin tell me there are no parts to fix Sterling's foot.  We need a special plate.  

10:30ish...I barge into the office of Dr. Albert's boss.  I show him the X-rays.  He says he thinks he has the part.  He'll call me in the afternoon.

11:00...Lacey calls me, they won't take her paperwork for the work permit because her University diploma is in Latin...for fuck's sake.  

I meet up with Lacey at the US Embassy.  They want a notarized translation of the diploma.  If I send that email to St. Lawrence University I'm thinking they might think we're a bit nutty here in Rwanda.  We go to a cafe, google translate it on my iPad and I call Francine to meet us at the Federation to print off the document.  

"I will be back at 2:00 I'm at lunch."

It's 11:45am.

"You will meet us at the Federation in 15 minutes!!!!!!!!!"  I got the stink eye from six Mzungus at the Mzungu cafe.  I have zero Kumbaya.

Taking lunch is a very UNAmerican thing unless you're closing a major business deal.  Who do you know in the US who takes 2+ hours for lunch?  I don't think I've ever taken lunch.

We head to the Federation, print the document, head back to the US Embassy, get it notarized and at 1:00pm Lacey is at Immigration to submit the paperwork.  They try to tell her they are closing for lunch.  Seriously, what is up with LUNCH in Rwanda?  She forces the paperwork on them and they take it.  SCORE!!!

Back to King Faisal...talking to the insurance company on and off the entire time.

Security Guard tries to block my way into the ward. 

"It's not visiting hours."

"Stop me...."  I get back to Sterling.  "Ok...we're working to get you out of here."

After a quick bite for lunch...less than 45 minutes...back on the road of death to Musanze to beat the darkness.  As I start driving...Jeanne d'Arc has taken Silver at the Continental Champs in Morocco, a historical day for Rwanda.  I can't tweet/FB anything for the next 2 hours while I'm driving.

....she did it...only missing Gold by 1 call Sterling.  I can hear the change in his voice.  We did it!!!

We had asked for Sterling to go to the Continental Championships...instead they took someone from the Federation instead of the coach.  Sterling should have been there.  The irony of that decision, out of my control, was not lost on me at that moment.

I grab some dinner and spend another 3 hours on the phone with the insurance company.  They are sending Sterling to Nairobi.  Hallelujah.

After several SMS/calls, the doctor in Kigali finally messages me back, they have the part.  Sorry....he's going to Nairobi as not only Team Rwanda but the insurance company has had enough with the inability to make a decision, relay information and give any indication he is getting the best care in Rwanda.

I pass out about midnight with the phone in my hand. rings, it's our guard David...he's caught a thief.

I throw on my clothes fully expecting to see some stranger they nabbed coming into our compound as we've had a few lately.  He shows me two boxes of produce and two bags of eggs (60).  Our Team Rwanda cook has been stealing.  We thought he had been but never had proof.  Wednesday morning we had our proof.  At least $10 worth of food.  He wasn't stealing to feed his family he was steeling to profit off the back of Team Rwanda.

I pounded on Simon's door, "Cook Breakfast!"

I'm not about to let a petty thief interrupt our Tour of Cameroon training camp.  

After several hours, getting all the witnesses in place, we had enough.

I looked at Thomas and said, "You didn't steal from a Mzungu, you stole from Team Rwanda.  You're a disgrace."

We escorted him off the property.

He came back 20 minutes later asking to be paid for the day.

It's the closest I've ever come to slapping someone.  I told him he had two choices...leave and never set foot on our property again or I would call the police commissioner who I have on speed dial and have him arrested.  He took option one.

He had stolen over $1,000 of food over 4-5 monhts from the team....I was sick.

The riders have been learning about integrity, discipline and character in English class.  I'm walking back to my house and I pass Bosco getting ready to head out for his training ride..."Mukecuru, Thomas has bad, bad character."

Yes, Bosco, he does.

I start sorting out Sterling's bag.  He's leaving at 6:10pm for Nairobi.  I arrange to get a bag and money to him with a driver heading to Kigali.  We live two hours away.

Little Eric comes back from training as I'm walking back to the office and hands me this photo.  He says, "From Mama, for you."

It is a photo of his mother and his three siblings.  It was a thank you for giving her food money every month.  I walk away holding back the avalanche of tears.  

Then I get the message....Valens has won the Continental Championships U23 ITT.  Rwanda's first gold medal in the history of the Championships.  The Rwandan national anthem is played for the first time.  

A couple more phone calls to the insurance company and a Facebook photo and Sterling is on his way to Nairobi for surgery.

54 hours later from when it all began....

My last chat with Sterling today, another 18 hours later....thank you for insurance, good hospitals, doctors and getting me through another day.

Tonight. Surgen(s) have all talked to me
Its like an episode of House
They know their shit

You cannot make this up...