DAY 5 – Daily Photo Challenge

Day 05 – A picture of one of your favorite memories.

First off I have so many amazing memories (like the birth of my kids and grandkids) that it’s hard to choose. This is a story with more than one photo about my medical mission trip to Vanuatu in September 2005.

The week before the trip, my very dear friend and partner in birth, Julie Anna Congdon, died from leukemia at the age of 30. Julie was suppose to take this volunteer journey with me and a week after we committed to the trip, she was diagnosed with CML and died 9 months later. I can’t on any level begin to tell you the immense grief I had and I nearly cancelled my trip, but Julie would not have wanted me to do that. She died on Sunday and I flew on Wednesday. There was a storm a’brewin in the Atlantic named Katrina and AA asked me to fly a day early, so I did. I did not find out about the devastation in New Orleans until 40 days later, sitting in the first class lounge in the Fiji airport.

First, I spent 4 glorious days in Sydney with two very generous ladies that I met on a tour in Beijing earlier that year. I saw most everything you could possibly see in Sydney in a whirlwind 4 days, the harbor, the Blue Mountains, koalas, cockatoos, Palm Beach on the back of a HARLEY! A phenomenal and memorable 4 days!

At the Sydney airport, waiting for my flight to Vanuatu, I was obsessed with the fact that I had only 35 packs of cigarettes for a 29 day trip and wondered if I should get one more carton. I sat there chain smoking like a fiend and finally had an epiphany, dumped the cigarettes on the table in the smoking lounge and walked away from cigarettes… FOREVER!


After being on this 72′ sailboat for 4 days, I was ready to explode… Lol. I had just quit smoking, one of the most awesome people I knew had just died and I had gone to Vanuatu to volunteer, not be stuck on a boat! The boat owner had refused to use the engine, because he didn’t want to put “money in Bush’s pocket” and there was no wind. I threatened mutiny (hell hath no fury like a chain smoker sans nicotine x 4 days) and he finally turned the engines on. When we were offshore of the first island we were stopping on, I dove off the boat and swam the 100 yards or so… It looked a helluva a lot closer from the boat!

I ended up on this beach and cried and cried and cried for nearly 2 hours… Loudly, sobbing and grieving… Alone, which was cathartic. The tide was moving out and as I sat there I pulled my camera out of my waterproof bag and took this shot…


I also wrote a long note to Julie in the sand and watched the tide take the message to her. It was the beginning of the mourning I needed to go through. No one bothered me the entire three hours I sat on that beach, except for the villager who brought me a coconut to drink out of.

We left medical supplies with the aid post worker, picked up the Chief of the village to come with us and headed to the island of Espiritu Santo. Most of my crew were going up “on top” to set up an aid post there…


When I say “on top”, I mean to the top of the farthest mountain back. We hiked through forest, creeks and mountains. I was scheduled to sleep one night up there, then head back to the beach for a trip to Wusi, where I would be teaching traditional birth attendants life saving skills in obstetrics. I got 500 yards from the top and could go no further. I had horrible vertigo and hyperventilated. I instead went half way down and stayed in a village over night… These were our typical accommodations…

Banana leaf mats on top of shale rock πŸ™‚

The next morning I hiked down to the beach, where I sat with a dog and ate fruit and read a book waiting for the sailboat…. After about 3 hours it came. I really enjoyed the solitude. The next day I began training 32 birth attendants in the Wusi village church. One of the skills I taught them was how to stop a woman from hemorrhaging after her baby has been born. Emily, the niece of the boat captain was my volunteer…

This photo brings me so much joy! These ladies came to learn! I was impressed with the amazing colors of their dresses!

I taught for 3 days in Wusi. During the afternoon break on the 3rd day I noticed they were bathing the village cow and adorning it with Fresia flowers around its neck. When I asked Simu (the Ni-Van who worked with me on the 3 day conference) what they were doing, he explained that they were thanking the cow for blessing them with the food for the feast we were having that night in my honor. ACK!!! I’m a carnivore, but I didn’t want them to kill their only source of meat for me! Simu told me that they were honored that I came and that a chief from a larger village (who had sent 3 midwives for training) would send another cow. Phew! I went and thanked the cow, as well, and walked way down the beach while he was humanely slaughtered. It was quite an honor, to,say the least and they use every single bit of the cow from the meat to the hide to the bones.

The following day the sailboat came back and we went to the south western tip of Espiritu Santo to treat people for scabies and do general health checks. This is how we typically got from the sailboat to shore…

I’m in the yellow shirt!

We treated lots of adorable babies and kids for scabies and their parents and their huts. It was awful and sad, but reports from the following year showed that the incidence was greatly reduced. We left the medicine there with the aid worker. Here’s one of those cutie patooties…


Michael and I held a hygiene class for this group of kids on our 2nd day in the village and left them with toothbrushes, toothpaste and body soap…


On the 3rd day in that village (maybe my 2nd week there) we walked through a village to a creek where we actually had a proper wash! And then we found this little chapel in the forest…


I left my shirt with Julie’s tears on it at this chapel. I was torn at first about leaving it behind. I held her in my arms the Wednesday night before she died and told her it was OK to let go. Her tears, yellow from liver failure, stained my shirt, as mine had soaked her gown. After a little prayer in this forest chapel I felt it was the perfect place to leave a little piece of Julie. She wanted to go on this trip with me and she did… And I left some of her goodness and light and sunshine there.

In the end, I didn’t go back to the States as scheduled. One of the volunteers on the trip needed medical care on a flight back to Europe. As we sat in the first class lounge in Fiji I learned of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left behind a month earlier. We landed at LAX and I called my family to let them know I was flying to Europe and would be home later in the week…

I have to say with all the things that happened surrounding this trip, it has to be one of my favorite memories!

22 thoughts on “DAY 5 – Daily Photo Challenge

  1. What a profound journey you had; I love that you shared it with us. It couldn’t have been easy to write, but you did it so beautifully, I felt as though I was there right with you.


    • Thanks, MJ. I’ve been thinking of Julie all day. I have days like that where lots of things remind me of her. Today I was at a marketing event at a mall and walked past a pile of cheap, rubbery high heel flip flops, Julie always wore them and I took a pic of them…. I call them Julie Moments. She had a profound affect on every person she met… We got in an argument once (one sided, she rarely raised her voice or temper) and she kissed me on the mouth to shut me up. We fell apart laughing… Argument over… She was truly a special being.

  2. Ah Sandi,
    This is exactly what I needed this morning, a little perspective. I remember working with Julia at HBC. It wasn’t long after my Cousin had been diagnosed with MCL and died of graph vs host disease that often comes with the potentially life saving treatment of marrow. When I heard that she too had been diagnosed I prayed every day for her. Even though she had been in my life for only a short time, know that she touched me.
    Now I read this and the things you have done and just mumble to myself ” I have not done enough” Thank you for reminding me what my path is.

  3. Sandi, You are an amazing woman. I absolutely love your zest for life. Dumping cigs on the table and walking away is a phenomenal testament to your determination. Traveling the world as you do is a great inspiration to me. The loss of a dear one is never easy, but you made a decision to allow your sorrow and love to propel you forward rather than staying stuck BRAVO! xoxo

    • Thanks, Anna. I actually felt like I lost 2 good friends that week. I mourned the loss of my cigarettes, as well. Quitting smoking was 1000 times more difficult than losing weight!

  4. Thanks for sharing such a personal and beautiful story. What a life you are living. Blessings to you.

  5. You are an amazing lady, Sandi, doing so much good in this world. An inspiration to us all. I will have Julie’s name on my San Diego race jersey and run in her memory.

    • Thanks, Tatjana, I knew you would understand. Your post about Jay was another one of those Julie moments the other day. I will have Jay in my heart as I run for a cancer foundation on June 9. Good luck with your upcoming 1/2 marathon!

    • Thank you, Christy… I love doing volunteer work. Tough sometimes to come up with all the resources needed for a trip, but I always seem to be able to πŸ™‚

  6. How courageous you were to go on this trip, especially right after such a devastating loss. What a great experience to remember. I was impressed with the teaching of the midwives-wonderful. I can only imagine what finding out about Katrina was like after all this. I know you will keep doing good work.

    • Well, when I spotted the cover of Time magazine my first thought was, oh my, what part of the world is THAT New Orleans in? It was a picture with a corpse floating in water. I couldn’t fathom it was OUR NOLA!

  7. That’s an amazing way to give up smoking! I still struggle and I gave up 2 years ago. Good on you for carrying on with your mission, Im sure your friend was watching over you. πŸ™‚

    • I lied to myself for months, saying over and over again, hundreds of times a day, “I have no desire to smoke a cigarette”. Eventually I believed me πŸ˜€
      Seriously the toughest obstacle I’ve ever overcome.

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