On September 24th, 2015, everything changed:
It was the day I received my Peace Corps Ecuador invitation. I was overwhelmed with such tremendous elation that I didn’t even stop to consider what would come next. Little did I know that for almost three months, I would be led down the most jarring bureaucratic trail that I had ever experienced. Granted, I’m only 21 years old, so perhaps I haven’t been alive long enough to gain familiarity with daunting paperwork and endless appointments. Nonetheless, the enormity of my to-do list would have made anyone’s head spin.
Just one day after receiving my invitation, I was bombarded with tasks and chores galore. I had to fill out visa and passport applications, sign a release for a background check, and get my fingers printed. To my dismay, I was allowed only enough time to take a few breaths before sixteen extensive medical tasks were uploaded to my Peace Corps Medical Application Portal (MAP). Because absolutely zero people in my social circle had ever experienced the new Peace Corps application process, I was utterly on my own. I also had this foolish notion that my healthcare providers would somehow attempt to make this a painless undertaking. I suppose I thought, “Who wouldn’t want to help a Peace Corps Volunteer?”
And so it began:
I received my invitation so early that it would be more than six weeks before my medical tasks would even become available on my MAP. The “Know By” date for programs leaving in April, May, and June was December 1st, and medical tasks always go up sixty days before this date. These tasks are influenced by the way prospective Volunteers answer specific questions in their Health History Forms (HHFs). For example, on the night I filled out my Peace Corps application, my HHF asked if I suffer from nearly every health condition known to our species, but luckily, my only notable ailment is my unfortunately bad vision. I wear glasses, and some people don’t. There are certain tasks in the MAP that every aspiring Volunteer must complete, but for people who wear glasses like me, or take specific medications, or recently had Lasik surgery, extra tasks are added gifts just for us.
On the day the tasks were uploaded to my MAP, I immediately downloaded all of the forms and read through them. With my mom’s help, we organized them, plastered them with yellow sticky notes, and prepared them as nicely as we could so that my healthcare providers would actually fill them out. I piled all of my medical tasks into one pile (health physical, necessary bloodwork, vaccine records, etc.), dental tasks into another pile (x-rays, examinations, potential restorative work, etc.), and my eyeglass prescription form into a pile all by itself. With eagerness to get this medical monkey off my back, I visited a fairly large clinic where I see a nurse practitioner. I was hoping her nurse would help me work through the paperwork, but when I arrived, I stood in an excruciatingly long line for twenty minutes, stared into the lifeless eyes of an impatient receptionist, and was ultimately turned away and told to come back another day. As I sulked home, I almost burst into tears. Not only was I just trying to get cleared for one of the most noble jobs a U.S. citizen could have, but my mind was also racing with school-related affairs like tests, projects, and graduate school entrance exams. I felt like I was standing in a crowded street, screaming at the top of my lungs, with not even a glance from anyone around me. Perhaps that makes me seem like an entitled millennial brat, but I was irate.
The next day, I returned to the clinic with my magnificent mother in tow. She worked as a medical coder at a private practice for thirty years, doing insurmountable heaps of paperwork each day. I like to think that hers is the face that haunts the work-related nightmares of receptionists across the land. When we arrived at the clinic, we shared a look, straightened our backs, and stormed the castle. Of course, some of our fire was dimmed by the elevator music and irritatingly long line (Is there ever not a line?!), but this time, we knew exactly what we were going to say. We scheduled a paperwork appointment with my nurse practitioner—which was a start. We even threw a folder brimming with paperwork at a receptionist, hoping she would give it to my nurse practitioner to glance through before our meeting.
In the meantime, my eyeglass prescription and dental tasks weren’t nearly as difficult to accomplish. I delivered the paperwork to my dental office, scheduled an appointment for a new x-ray and an exam, and was out the door in minutes. However, when I took the eyeglass paperwork to my optometrist, I was met by another receptionist’s blank stare. She took the paperwork and said she would give it to the doctor, which was good enough for me. When she called the next day, saying my paperwork was ready; I was ecstatic to finally have something done. I rushed to the clinic, ran inside, and was greeted by the infamous BLANK STARE.
“Sorry, but we can’t fill this paperwork out. It has to be completed by whomever is filling your eyeglass prescription.”
I did everything I could not to scream. I tried to explain to her that it had to be completed by my optometrist. I think she could see the subtle ferociousness building in my eyes, so she nervously took back the paperwork and sent me away. A day later, she called, asking if I could come talk to the doctor. I dropped everything I was doing (Studying. I was studying.) to talk to the doctor, who was actually much more phlegmatic than I would have expected, given the circumstance. He warmly invited me into his office and did that small talk thing:
“Oh, Peace Corps, eh? So, where are you going? Medical stuff? What will you be doing? Two years?! WOW.”
After chatting with me, he measured my pupillary distance, quickly filled out the paperwork, and sent me on my way.
One task down.
Three weeks later, I returned to the dentist’s office where I’ve been going my entire life. When I enter the clinic, I generally hear multiple people shout out, “Hi, Abbie,” and I always know it will be a good time. I realize going to the dentist is supposed to have a reputation for being a miserable experience, but man, do I love my biannual visits. But I digress, I returned to the office for a new x-ray and an updated exam, which were extremely easy and quick. The dental hygienists and my dentist reviewed the paperwork carefully, making sure it was filled out correctly. Easy as pie (sugar-free, of course).
Two tasks down.
Next up was the gauntlet. I had to return to the clinic for my paperwork meeting, which of course, had to be on a Friday in the late afternoon. My nurse practitioner’s nurse took me into an exam room, handed me the folder I left at the clinic three weeks before (It hadn’t been touched once.), and asked me to wait for the nurse practitioner. After a year of waiting for her, I had grown a full beard, built a house of cards, and completed twenty large puzzles before she finally entered the exam room.
“Hi! I hear you need me to sign something,” she exclaimed.
WHAT? Sign SOMETHING? How about multiple somethings? After explaining to her that Peace Corps invitations can be jeopardized by ill-completed paperwork, I watched as she haphazardly signed some of it, ordered the necessary bloodwork, and told me to come back on Monday. After having my blood drawn for essentially every blood test in the books, I left the clinic feeling spent.
I returned on Monday for the rest of the paperwork, only to find out that my nurse practitioner forgot to order one of my blood tests, meaning I had to be pricked again. Her nurse also had to give me a DTap (Diptheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis) booster, and I had to visit a clinic in a neighboring town for my Yellow Fever vaccine—because of course, there is a shortage of them in the United States. You can think of my story as a masochist’s version of Sleeping Beauty, where the glamorous princess with perfect hair (Me, duh.), is poked and prodded into oblivion by the evil Maleficent (i.e. Needles).
After my own personal hell seemed to finally be over, I returned one last time to the clinic for the results of my blood tests. They all seemed to be normal, but because I received the Hepatitis B series as a baby, I was no longer immune to the virus. I definitely panicked—not because I didn’t have the immunity, but because I didn’t want to have to go back to that clinic again—but fortunately, I didn’t need to be immune to Hepatitis B to be medically cleared.
Three tasks down.
I was irrevocably done with this treasure hunt. I finally took my pile of paperwork, scanned it onto my computer, pressed submit, and let out an obnoxious sigh of relief. I was sincerely hoping that everything was done perfectly, and that I wouldn’t have to submit anything again.
That was on Friday, December 4th.
On Wednesday, December 9th, I was studying in my college’s student union building with a few friends, when I received this email:
Dear Abbie Olson,
Congratulations! This email serves as confirmation of your medical clearance, which includes your dental clearance for Peace Corps service. You are now medically cleared to depart for Peace Corps Volunteer service…
“YEEEESSSS!!! FINALLY,” I shouted with a stupid grin. My friends all looked at me like I had finally cracked. They must have thought, “Poor Abbie. College is rough. She must be going insane from the stress.” Well, whatever. Maybe I am insane. Maybe I deserve to be a little insane after that endeavor. Nonetheless, the rocky, horrendous paper trail has finally reached a smoother patch, and I’m nothing but smiles.
Tips for Future Invitees:
To prevent yourselves from traveling to hell and back like I did:
- Search for medical providers who have helped PCVs with paperwork before. One of my biggest headaches was utilizing people who had never helped a single PCV.
- If you must use someone who has never treated a PCV, write out a simple to-do list for him or her to review before you visit him or her.
- Understand which of your labs must have “immune” results. When I received my bloodwork, I noticed that I was no longer immune to Hepatitis B, panicked that I wouldn’t receive clearance, then started the Hepatitis B booster series before talking to my Pre-Service Nurse. As it turns out, immunity to Hepatitis B isn’t necessary for medical clearance, and the Peace Corps would have actually administered my Hepatitis B booster series for free. Take this as a lesson to always communicate with your Pre-Service Nurse. Ask him or her which immunities are absolutely necessary for medical clearance, because the paperwork from your MAP will not specify this tidbit of information.
- Make sure Yellow Fever vaccinations are available in your area. I lucked out because a university in a neighboring town ordered extra Yellow Fever vaccines for students going abroad over the winter break. If you allow plenty of time to do this, your local Public Health clinic should be able to order one for you.
- If you’re short on funds, shop around for dentists or physicians who might be willing to do restorative work or physical exams pro bono.
- If you’re in school, try to schedule as few appointments as you can. For weeks, this clearance was all I could think about, and it was really clouding my mind.
- Try to stay calm. It takes time to get the clearance, but if you’re a healthy individual, you will get it. Even if you had to storm a few castles like I did, you’re proving to the Peace Corps that you really do want this.
- Get ahold of the Office of Medical Services if you have any specific questions. I’ve noticed that they’re very willing to help, and they email back quickly.
Side note: I just want to clarify that all of the people in this post are good, kind people, and that I have nothing but the utmost respect for all of them.
If you imagined any of them as this,
I assure you, they are nothing but normal people who were simply caught in the medical clearance line of fire.