Dear Kellyanne Conway – This is what feminism looks like

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Ms Conway spoke at the CPAC convention last week on the contemporary definition of feminism as anti-male and pro-abortion. I consider myself a feminist and don’t identify with either of these definitions. I heard about her commentary as I was driving between appointments and reflected on my “feminist” activities on the same day as she was speaking at the convention. Following is the run-down of what a feminist does on her day off from her usual job as a physician serving women – the ultimate feminist job.

  1. Awake at 6 am to make breakfast for daughters as they head out to high school.
  2. Text with 26 year old son about upcoming interview for nursing school.
  3. Spend 2 hours on Haiti non-profit, Helping Haiti Work, that grants microloans to women and operates a sewing center that constructs reusable menstrual pads for sale in the community. Women that participate in this program are empowered to be leaders in their families and communities.
  4. Volunteer at a local public elementary school tutoring first graders in reading and math. 90% of the students in this school are children of color. The teachers are dedicated and constantly working to involve each child in the curriculum.
  5. Grocery shopping for the week. My husband and I split this task, but he often does more than 50%. Arrive home and start dinner in crockpot for husband and daughters as we will be eating at different times. I cook because I love to and not because I am the mother. Husband also does his share of meal prep.
  6. Drive across town to the MN legislature. I have volunteered to speak before the Health and Human Services Committee in opposition to 2 bills that are being introduced to restrict access to abortion. I am NOT pro-abortion, but rather pro-choice and pro-contraception. Along with many of my colleagues, I feel that government should stay out of the room when a physician is counseling a patient.
  7. Attend a year-end meeting of our independent medical clinic, one of the few non-hospital owned clinics left in our area. I am a board member of this clinic and up for re-election so give a 5 minute speech about the value of independence and what measures we need to take in the future to stay that way. My value as a board member is based on experience, working hard and ability to appreciate other’s opinions. Being the only female board member is a responsibility I do not take lightly.
  8. Head back to St Paul to attend a visit to an Eastern Orthodox church, arranged thru Tapestry, an interfaith group of women that works to break down religious and cultural barriers thru education and service. I am proud to be one of the 3 founders of this growing organization but saddened to know that our existence is needed now more than ever. It was interesting to hear the stories behind the iconography that is so much a part of the Eastern Orthodox religion, but also to reflect on the similarities between the Jewish faith and to view the women in the pictures as wearing the traditional head coverings or hijab. During the social hour following the church tour, I lamented with my Muslim friends about the difficulties of encouraging our teens to stay involved in their respective religions. We found that we shared many of the same difficulties as well as joys.
  9. Arrived home around 9:30 and discussed husband’s experience at local town hall political meeting that was attended by 1000 constituents but not our legislator. We made plans for future involvement in politics and discussed our shared values with our daughters.
  10. Crawled into bed around 11 pm as I had an early morning surgery and clinic the next day. This is where the real feminist is unleashed – advocating for free birth control, vaccinations, knowledge about our bodies and how they work and access to health care as a human right and not a privilege.

Feminism is the right to be treated as an equal human being and to be able to make our own choices. That is not anti-male or pro-abortion. That is human decency and what I teach both my sons and my daughters.

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Traveling with an Immigrant

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Last weekend, we left Minneapolis for Seattle. At the time the plane departed, the 3 judge panel was still deliberating the enforcement of the travel ban imposed by President Trump. When we landed 4 hours later the news had changed. The judges had unanimously ruled against the travel ban and our country was now in legal limbo. I looked at my traveling companion, an immigrant to this country 17 years earlier, and thought about how differently her life would have been if she had not immigrated to this country. Her parents on both sides of the Pacific made financial and emotional sacrifices so that she would have education and life opportunities that were not available to her in her home country. This immigrant is my daughter, born in a Korean society that does not have social support for single, unwed mothers and their children. We were visiting a college in the Pacific Northwest, far from her home in Minnesota but closer to her birthplace both in terms of geography and culture. I hastily brushed away tears as we grabbed our luggage to exit the plane (those tears might be the reason I forgot the umbrella in the overhead compartment), thinking about stories of families in the news that had been denied entry to America earlier in the week and who would now be reunited with family members already here.

Unlike the immigrant families from the 7 banned countries, my daughter is the beneficiary of white privilege. My husband and I were able to afford the adoption fees because we had the advantage of college educations and professional jobs. She grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood and attended above average public schools. She has participated in extra curricular sports and activities, attended summer camps and traveled throughout the United States and internationally. A college education is expected by her parents and peers and she has many excellent choices. Her high school friends are multi-racial and from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the majority of this would not be possible if she happened to be from a Muslim majority culture. Why does the color of your skin in this country dictate what your future may hold? When will Americans be able to look past skin, hair and clothes for the qualities of the person underneath?

Today, February 16th, immigrants are trying to remind us of the contributions that they provide this country by staying home from work and school. Ethnic restaurants are closed, children are staying home from school and college and adults are staying home from work. Some service businesses will have a difficult time functioning, but isn’t that the point? Until we realize the contributions of immigrants in our daily lives, only then are we better able to understand how these new immigrants can benefit America.

I received a phone call from a friend this morning, torn between staying home with her husband and children in solidarity vs feeling guilty about her job that is difficult to fill on last-minute notice. She is a citizen of this country, born here to an immigrant mother. Her husband is a Dreamer, brought to this country illegally as a child by his parents. Despite multiple attempts to obtain citizenship, he has not been successful. He has worked full-time since his teen years, supporting his family and contributing to the American economy. These are the difficult stories behind the majority of immigrant families. They are not here to bring in drugs, commit crimes or spread terrorism. They are fleeing their home countries due to these problems, looking for a better life in a country that was founded by immigrants. What would this world look like if white privilege meant that those of us who are bestowed this advantage by birth use it to offer a helping hand to guide others as they ascend the mountain of life? That is the world that I would love to live in.

Breast Feeding, Jade Eggs and the Gspot

This post combines two of my favorite topics: international mission work and working to dispel rumors. You may wonder how the topics above have any relationship to each other. Stay with me for a few paragraphs and I think you will better understand.

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When we are in Haiti for a medical mission week we try to listen as well as teach. This trip we became aware of the tendency for Haitian women to quit breast-feeding their children after 1-2 months so that their breasts can retain their “sexy” look. Powdered milk is now more available but still expensive. Thus, women use the powdered milk as a substitute for breast milk and dilute the milk to make it last longer. Water in Haiti is often contaminated with bacteria, leading to an increase in diarrhea diseases in children. Diarrhea in combination with poor nutrition from diluted milk causes chronic malnutrition. Parents aren’t able to purchase the medications or medical care and frequently abandon these malnourished children in orphanages. An entire cascade of problems that all started with a “sexy breast”.

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Another story. Gwyneth Paltrow recently advocated the use of jade eggs for women to stick inside their vaginas to maximize their “feminine appeal” while increasing vaginal muscle tone and orgasms. Not coincidentally, she sold the jade eggs on her website for a mere $66!  The tragic part of this story is not that Gwyneth purports pseudoscience on her lifestyle website. The internet is full of more inaccurate medical theories than accurate. The crazy part is that the jade eggs sold out!! Women were willing to put their health at risk for a ridiculous theory that was backed by an attractive Hollywood star with no medical background. The benefit of this monetary and health risk was to improve their attractiveness to men. Are you starting to understand where I might be heading on this topic?

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Third story. A patient in our clinic this past month had been paying to have Gspot amplification done in a clinic that advertises cosmetic gynecological procedures, such as labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation. Gspot amplification is a procedure that has no medical evidence to support it and is advertised as a procedure that needs to be continuously repeated. The benefit is that it improves vaginal tightness and restores appearance and function. Appearance and function for whom? Do you finally get it?

Women in Haiti and the US are not so very different. Each are willing to sacrifice their health, the health of their children and their money to appeal more sexual to men. Equally at fault are the men who help to perpetuate these myths for their own benefit. I don’t think you would see many men paying $66 for a jade egg to put in their rectum so that they would appear more masculine to women. Men wouldn’t allow an injection in their private parts to restore appearance and sexual function. Heck – they won’t even agree to a vasectomy after their partners have pushed out 2-3 basketball sized infants thru their vaginas. Vaginas that now need jade eggs and Gspot amplification to become restored. Sure hope that Gwyneth has a second shipment of those jade eggs arriving soon from Asia.

The American Welcome Mat Has Been Pulled

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Our country is deeply divided on many issues, the most recent concerning immigrants from Muslim countries. I find it disturbing that the wealthiest country in the world is shutting the door on those that are the most marginalized and in need of our grace and acceptance. Arguing with those who don’t believe as I do doesn’t work. But sometimes personal stories cause others to stop and consider how we may appear to the rest of the world.

I have felt more acceptance and a welcoming spirit during my travels abroad than I have felt from my own neighbors here in Minnesota. During a recent trip to China, our guide became lost during a 6 hour trek thru terraced rice fields. When asking directions of a young man on the path, he offered to show us the shortcut to our final destination. He saw that we were wet and cold and had us stop by his house so that his elderly grandmother could fix us hot tea and serve us oranges. Three hours later we arrived safely at our destination and he waved at us as he turned and walked back home.

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I have been welcomed into humble Haitian homes and served a Coke, knowing that the family may have skipped a meal in order to purchase the beverages.

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When we traveled to Kenya as part of a medical mission trip, my group was hosted and feted almost every night for hours at a stretch.

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Tapestry, a movement I co-founded to increase interfaith dialogue and acceptance, has been welcomed into Muslim, Jewish and Christian places of worship in the Mpls area. Unfortunately, it has been the Christian places of worship that have expressed more reservations when it comes to accepting the beliefs of another religion. In an attempt to spread the wonderful work that we are accomplishing, I have spoken to representatives of churches outside the metro area about hosting similar gatherings in their communities. I have not been successful in receiving a single invite. Those Christian communities who follow the same teachings of Jesus that I do – welcoming the poor, oppressed and marginalized – won’t let anyone cross their threshold who doesn’t “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior”, to quote one person that I spoke with. And yet we Christians have been warmly welcomed and hosted by both a synagogue and a mosque.

Even Pope Francis has spoken out on the treatment of refugees by Christians. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

One final story about why America is already great. This picture depicts a Chinese American girl born in China, a girl whose father was born in Ecuador and a girl whose mother has survived breast cancer twice due to medical research in the US. These girls used their time last weekend to help pack reusable menstrual pad kits for less fortunate girls in Haiti. What are you doing to keep this country great? Are you reaching out to those who are less fortunate with a helping hand? Or are you supporting the America First Agenda where those who have much refuse to share with others. img_1551

The Power of Globalization

While many of my friends were participating in the Women’s March on Saturday, I was proud to be working with a group of seamstresses who were busy demonstrating the power of globalization and how it can be used to benefit others. 30 women and 1 man showed up to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to school girls in Haiti, as well as prepping fabric for our Haitian seamstresses to construct the same kits and earn a livable wage. We were our own march for the equality of women throughout the world, signifying that Women’s rights are Human rights. Helping others less fortunate causes all of us to rise; attempting to divide women by country, sexual orientation or race will only make us more resolute and determined.

The Paradoxes of Haiti

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My first week back after a medical mission trip to Haiti presents many difficulties – some physical (I won’t expand on the topic of GI issues after eating rice, beans and potatoes every day for a week) but most psychological. At 10 am on Sunday I was enjoying the feel of sand between my toes and salt water on my ankles as I walked down the beach, knowing that 12 hours later I would be arriving to Minnesota and freezing temps. That is the uncomplicated part of the transition. The psychological transition is still a part that I struggle with and sometimes do better than other times. Following are just a few of the thoughts that have created a wrestling match in my head this week.

  1. We were able to prevent a woman from dying due to a bad infection in her foot by amputating her lower leg. She has very poorly controlled diabetes due to poverty, low IQ, and lack of resources for adequate administration of insulin. One of the last patients  I saw before I left for Haiti also has poorly controlled diabetes – due to lack of motivation to check her blood sugars and take medication, both of which are provided thru her insurance.
  2. Maternity was very busy the week we were in Haiti and our nursing volunteers spent many hours working with Haitian staff to improve breast-feeding and care of patients in labor. It is much easier to teach the mechanics of nursing care than it is to teach respectful care. Slapping and yelling at patients during labor is all too commonplace.
  3. Cervical cancer continues to be a preventable disease that kills all to many mothers, disrupting their families. We screened 67 patients for cervical cancer, treated 10 pre-cancerous lesions and diagnosed 1 locally advanced cancer that is untreatable and will be the cause of death in this woman within the next year. A combination of low-cost screening and vaccination with Gardasil has the potential to completely eliminate this cancer throughout the world. Due to unfounded fears of vaccines in this country, only 40% of young girls and boys are vaccinated with Gardasil.
  4. Motorcycles are the primary mode of transportation in Haiti. We treated 3 victims of moto accidents, one a  16-year-old girl who will have permanent scarring on her leg that impedes her ability to walk in the future. Once their wounds were cleaned, stitched and dressed, we sent them home on a motorcycle
  5. Most of the hysterectomies that we perform are due to fibroids (benign tumors of the uterus) and heavy menses. One of the patients that we saw was 41 years old and had not been able to conceive a pregnancy. She was severely anemic but her husband decided that they would pray to God for a miracle child rather than allowing her to have surgery. Another woman looked 8 months pregnant due to her enlarged uterus and her hemoglobin was 3 (normal is 12-15). She was in danger of bleeding to death with her next period. In the US, she would have received 4 units of blood before surgery. She received one unit of blood that was donated by a relative and infused during her surgery. She was also unhappy as she has only one child.
  6. A young man presented to clinic with a large abscess on his arm. His HIV test was positive, as was his syphilis test. He did not believe the results and declined government-funded HIV meds or antibiotics. We could not operate on him as he was at high risk of complications with active HIV.

When co-workers see me this week they often ask, “How was Haiti?”. Trying to find the words to describe the above and more can be difficult, if not impossible,  in a few minute passing conversation.  Do others really want to hear the confusion in my head or do they want to hear that we performed 49 surgeries, 67 cervical cancer screenings and 104 dental exams?  To say “Great job and thank you for what you do” and then move on. But what we do in one week is not enough. And that is the Paradox of Haiti.

My upcoming Caribbean vacation – Haiti and warmth!

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I am sitting in my kitchen in MN this morning contemplating all of the errands that I need to accomplish before I journey to Haiti in 3 days. The current temperature here is -8 with a projected high of 0 degrees. The heat and humidity of Hispaniola (collective term for the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) is appealing, but this is far from a beach vacation. Our team of 14 will be performing surgery for 5 days as well as participating in a distribution of 114 menstrual pad kits to local school girls. However, the most worthwhile portion of the trip will be connecting with Haitian friends that we have not seen for a year.

In 2006 when I participated in my first surgical mission trip, I thought it was worthwhile, that we helped many people and that I was not going to do this again. It was a checkmark on my bucket list and I could start moving on. I failed in that I have returned 1-2 times a year to the island and my bucket list has only grown longer with fewer checkmarks. Sometimes failure is good.

My understanding of this island nation has increased dramatically since that first trip, while my perception of issues as black and white has changed to various shades of grey. For every beneficial initiative, there can be a downside. Initiating a HIV program in a hospital and hiring additional staff – beneficial. Existing staff now wants to be paid extra to take care of HIV patients because they believe there is additional outside dollars to support this. Bringing toys and new clothes for the orphanage kids that attend a local school – beneficial. More children are abandoned at the orphanage because poor Haitians see orphanage kids having a better life than they can provide. These are only a few of the examples that I have seen over the years.

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Father Charles organized a meeting of all ladies in the microloan program in Ranquite. “I teach them the way to use money, they share their experience, how the microloans service is benefit for them, it helps them to take care their families. It’s was an appointment of brotherhood.”

Our current microfinance program that lends women money for growth of their small business (Helping Haiti Work) is not without concerns. I do not live in Haiti and administer this program, so I have to rely on others to be truthful about distribution of the funds and respectful coaching of the recipients. The other arm of this program involves employing Haitian seamstresses to construct reusable menstrual pad kits for sale in the community. The average Haitian woman who needs this product is not able to pay enough to cover the cost of supplies/wage to seamstress. Do we distribute the kits for free and continue to depend on donations to subsidize the program? Or do we focus on selling to NGOs that have more funds and can cover our costs?

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Seamstresses assembling 300 menstrual pad kits

While these competing interests are playing tug of war in my head, I am gratified to report that we finished 2016 by granting 25 new loans and started 2017 by filling an order for 300 menstrual pad kits that will be distributed to school girls near Gonaives. Sometimes it is more important to think like a Haitian – appreciate today and don’t worry so much about tomorrow. That means I need to try to appreciate this cold MN weather while trying to finish all my errands today.