After very tearful goodbye, we bid farewell to the entire NEA staff at 6:30 am Friday morning. We collectively decided not to say goodbye, but rather, to say “see you soon.” The hope that many of us will return in 2018 made the goodbye less painful.
Our journey to Kumasi was smooth and we arrived with lots of time to spare for our flights to Accra. Fifty of us were awaiting one in-country flight, while the other sixteen of us were awaiting one due to depart 15 minutes later. Our dental colleague Dr. Richard dropped by with gifts for the team. All was well. What could possibly go wrong? (Right Dan?)
Before I tell you, let me rewind by 24 hours.
Friday was a wonderful day as we began bright and early with a devotional time led by the NEA staff. It is one of my favourite moments of the trip when we collectively give thanks to God for his provision, protection and favour during our fortnight. Emotions were running high before we even got to breakfast and I blame Dr. Jo for getting us started!
After breakfast we began PID day. (Our medical readers will get a kick out of this acronym.) For us, it stands for “packing and inventory day.” Each team has to clean, inventory and pack away all of their team supplies, leaving them in order for the next mission. The operating theatres and laser clinic need to be disassembled as they are used for other purposes the rest of the year. Leftover medication and medical supplies are strategically divided up to deliver to various hospitals and clinics. Joan has the responsibility to oversee this entire day and she couldn’t believe that we were were all wrapped up before 3 pm. It was a great final team effort and Joan provided exceptional oversight.
Friday night, many of us dolled up in our new Ghanaian outfits and joined all NEA volunteers and their families for one big party. Large round tables with white tablecloths were set out in the yard and after many pictures were taken, we enjoyed an incredible feast under the stars. After beautiful parting words were spoken by Dr. Mensah, each team member received a container of peanuts from the NEA women’s coop. Dr. Rob and I had the honour of responding to this gift and giving final words of thanks to our Ghanaian team. On one hand we were so happy to be celebrating all we accomplished together, but on the other hand, our impending goodbye was heavy on our hearts.
After dinner, David Mensah himself kicked off the dancing and we danced under the stars with the help of Prosper who was the DJ for the evening. David then decided to hold a “dance off” of sorts. One by one he called each team up to “show us your moves” … the eye team, the doctors, the kitchen staff, the surgical team, the drivers and security team and even the children had a chance to dance in front of the crowd. In the end, our anaesthesia team won the prize as Dr. Perry’s moves could not be beat! What a celebration it was.
Friday morning came all to soon, which brings me back to the beginning of my blog.
At 2:00 pm an airport announcement rang out, “Due to severe weather in Accra, flights will be delayed by 2 hours.” No problem. Our international flights did not leave until 10:00 pm so we had lots of time to get to Accra.
An hour later the next announcement let us know that the first flight to Accra had been cancelled. Oh my. Fifty of us were now officially stranded in Kumasi.
Whenever our best laid plans get thwarted in Ghana, David Mensah always laughs and then says “Murphy has struck again!” Murphy’s law states that “If anything can go wrong, it will,” and David always jokingly reminds us that Murphy is alive and well in Ghana. In fact, this is one of the reasons that resilience is one of our team values.
So when Murphy struck, the team kicked into action. They gathered together and patiently waited for an announcement from our leadership. A decision was quickly made in collaboration with Dr. Mensah that the team would stick together and try and make the journey together to Accra by road. NEA quickly mobilized two busses; one team member bought all the water the airport had to sell; others pooled all snacks in backpacks to divide up; and bladders were drained as much as humanly possible as we knew there would not be much time for pit stops. We had 6 hours and 20 minutes to make a 4-6 hour drive.
Bus number one arrived and it could take fifty passengers. A quick decision was made that all North Americans would go on this bus because their flight took off 30 minutes prior to the UK’s flight. (Dr. Magdi, Dr. Dan, Dr. Neil and Ashley joined us as the second bus could only hold 15.) The second bus would be smaller and would make better time, so the rest of the UK team stayed behind to wait.
45 minutes later Dr. Rob’s team finally departed Kumasi in what he described as a “very cozy bus.”
Onward we went. Let’s just say that Murphy struck many times along the way — bumper to bumper traffic, rain, windshield wipers that temporarily malfunctioned just to name a few. As the minutes ticked by, Google Maps was making it very clear that we would be cutting it very, very close to make our flights. Our GRID team in Canada was in constant communication and helped us get all North Americans checked in online. Surely that would help. Meanwhile, UK family members were doing the same.
What could have been an extremely tense ride was in fact filled with lots of laughter, games, sharing of food, and the UK team spent some of their cozy ride practicing a talent show act for 2018! Everyone stepped up and made the best of our nail-biting 5 hour and 20 minute ride, keeping each other’s spirits high, all the while recognizing that we may be staying a little longer in Ghana than planned.
What struck me the most was how gracious everyone was, and how supportive they were with the decisions that were made along the way. Team Carpenter and our Canadian travel contacts were trying desperately to speak to KLM and Air France to request a delay; meanwhile many of us on those buses and back at home just prayed. I know the entire NEA staff were praying too. We prayed collectively for a safe arrival in Accra first and foremost. And then we prayed we could get everyone home as soon as possible.
At 7:55 pm Murphy struck again with a text from Dr. Rob: “We are all on the side of the road. We have a puncture. Thankfully there is a spare. Standby.”
At 8:21: “The flat tire is stuck on the wheel and they cannot get it off. Progress is slow. Blimey – it’s just like the movies.” I think blimey is my new favourite word.
At 9:00 pm, with one hour until our flight to Toronto, the first coach arrived safely at the airport. Thanks be to God. Steve, Barb and I sprinted in to the airport, leaving the team to coordinate the world’s fastest offload of our carry-on bags and our luggage. Barb stood guard ready to direct our incoming team inside the airport, while Steve and I ran to the KLM gate only to be told it was closed. In no uncertain terms we were informed by agents and management that there was no way they could process 50 people and all that luggage in an hour. I understood where they were coming from but Steve and I were not ready to give up and Barb just kept directing everyone in.
Every type of negotiation technique was employed, including one of my personal favourites — the shedding of tears. Magdi was doing the same at the Air France desk next to us (minus the shedding of tears, I think). Meanwhile our travel representatives in Canada were doing all they could, and many, many, many people were praying that we would just be let onto that flight.
Suddenly, without any announcement, they just started processing us all as fast as humanly possible. It felt like a modern day miracle as we were ushered through. The plane full of people didn’t look too happy when we boarded and I think we made it worse with all our strutting, happy dances and high-fiving.
Meanwhile Rob’s team was back on the road and making a run for it. Fortunately, they made it safe and sound, for which we thank God. Unfortunately, they arrived only a few minutes before their plane was to due depart to Paris, and it was just too late for them to join Magdi, Dan, Neil and Ashley (who did all they could short of lying in front of the door to delay that plane).
The following text came through from Dr. Rob just as we were about to take off: “Dear Jenn. Have a safe trip and I hope you all get home safely. It has been a fabulous trip this year. We have just spoken to David – he is clearly tracking all of us. All will be fine – one way or another. Safe travels and our love to the awesome GHT 2017.” Rob has been an amazing leader to this surgical team so these parting words, in the midst of our happy ending and their not quite so happy ending, did not surprise me one bit.
As I write this blog we are on the final leg of our journey from Amsterdam to Toronto. Magdi and his 3 amigos are already home! Rob messaged saying that they were all smiling now, booked on flights for Sunday night and having breakfast at the hotel in Accra. I know they will have many stories to tell about their Amazing Race Ghana, and we continue to pray for their final journey home.
I believe that one of the greatest tests of a team is how they perform during unguarded moments — moments when they are not expecting to be a team or to function as a team. Today was one of those moments. Our mission was over. We were “off duty.” Our hearts were set for home and then, as David says, “Murphy struck.” A storm, a cancelled flight, a massive traffic jam, a flat tire when we were least expecting it. But this team embraced a situation beyond our control with resilience, creativity, strategy, humour, friendship and trust in our leadership as we faced our last test as a team. And together, with Dr. Mensah’s team in Carpenter and in Accra, and our team in Canada and in the UK, I believe we passed the test. In some ways if feels like a fitting conclusion to this mission, and it certainly will make it all the more memorable!
The important thing is that we are all safe and we are all on our way home. We are are acutely mindful that any temporary discomfort we faced on this one day truly pales in comparison to the challenges that the people of Northern Ghana face every single day. We have learned much from our friends and our patients in Ghana and perhaps we were even able to apply some of what we learned on this very day.
It will be just so good to be home to share all of our experiences with our loved ones.
Signing off for 2017 once again,