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I recently spent 3 weeks in Honduras, mainly because I wanted to work on my Spanish and this was one of the few Central American countries I hadn’t visited yet.

For my first week I stayed in the Lake Yojoa area and hiked and kayaked.  It was pretty and peaceful and exactly what I had hoped for as a quiet get-away.

During my second week and a half I lived with a super sweet host family and took private Spanish lessons for 4 hours a day in Copan Ruinas.

I also did a little sightseeing, most notably the large Mayan ruins site in Copan.

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During my last few days I went to Roatan Island in the Caribbean, which is surrounded by the world’s second largest coral reef.  I snorkeled and swam and spent a lot of quality time reading in a hammock.

 

Gracias, Honduras!

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doula (/ˈduːlə/), also known as a birth companion, birth coach or post-birth supporter, is a non-medical person who stays with and assists a woman before, during, or after childbirth, to provide emotional support and physical help if needed.

~ Wikipedia

I started fostering cats for the Animal Humane Society in September 2017, and have gotten to cuddle and play with about a dozen felines so far.  My most recent foster was a pregnant stray, who happened to give birth while I was home!  So exciting!!

The Humane Society gave me plenty of information about cat births beforehand, and in fact decided to start placing pregnant cats in foster care (rather than having them give birth in the shelter as had been their previous policy) because cat births are usually straightforward.

Luckily, my little cat April (aka Mamacita, aka Mamita) proved to be a textbook example.  She woke me up from a nap, which was nothing new, as she regularly woke me up once or twice a night for attention and cuddles. However, when I groggily turned and saw her walking away with a little amniotic sac starting to balloon out of her hoo-ha, I snapped to attention.  I bolted off the couch and told her “Come on! Let’s go to your cat room!” She immediately trotted into the room I had set up with her litter box, food, water, and nesting box, settled herself into the cat carrier lined with blankets, and started having stronger contractions.  I went to the bathroom, and she got up and followed me into the bathroom, laying down on the tile.  “Ok,” I thought, “you can have the kittens in here if you want.” I went into the living room to grab my phone, and she got up and followed me there, too.  I think she wanted me to be nearby, so I went back into the cat room and settled in there with her.

Kitten 1 came out and she did exactly what she was supposed to do – lick open the amniotic sac the kitten was born in and clean the kitten up, stimulating it to start breathing in the process.  She bit off the umbilical cord and ate the placenta (super gross), exactly like she was supposed to.  She then laid down and had more contractions.  Kitten 2 came out and she did everything perfectly again.

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Kitten 3 started to appear and I could see it was coming out feet first.  This seemed to be a little harder for Mamita, but she still pushed through like a champ and cleaned the kitten up.  However, instead of biting off the umbilical cord and eating number 3’s placenta, she started napping.  She seemed exhausted.  I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to step in and take care of the cord, but was prepared to tie it off with dental floss just in case.

A friend called me to Facetime because she wanted to see the kitties.  During our call, a fourth kitten started to appear.  The Humane Society told me they saw three kittens during in the pre-natal x-ray, so this was a surprise.  I hung up on my friend and made sure kitten 4 came out alright.  Mamita took care of the cords and placentas for both number 3 and 4, and spent the rest of the evening napping and nursing with her brood of teeny newborns.

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I only got to have them for 11 days because I started my summer travels (they went to another foster family and will stay there until ready for adoption), but it was so sweet to have a handful of brand new babies around and to see April taking such good care of them.

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I almost let this month slip by without acknowledging the 10-year (!!!) anniversary of my blog.

TEN YEARS!

I started this in May 2008 when was I about to embark on a cruise ship to teach English for the summer.  I taught on another cruise ship the next summer, then moved to Indonesia for a year, then Turkey for a semester, then Ecuador for the next two-and-a-half years.  Then I moved to Minnesota, bought a condo in Minneapolis, and confined most of my international travels to summer vacations, with the exception of moving to Brazil for a 5-month English Specialist project.  I’ve shared a lot of adventures here over the past 10 years.  But I feel sheepish boasting about them right now, given a series of conversations I’ve recently had with friends in Minnesota.

Let me preface this by saying that I know several of my friends and acquaintances in Minnesota are undocumented immigrants.  Probably more than I realize, because I don’t ask about those things and only know their statuses if they choose to tell me.  However, as I’ve gotten to know a couple people better, I’ve been appalled at the hardships they went through to get to the U.S.

One friend told me he chose to cross the border independently, rather than pay several thousand dollars to a smuggler to help him cross.  He and a friend walked through the desert for a month.  A MONTH!   He explained that it’s best not to cross from June through August because that’s when the snakes are the worst.  He then added that some people try to shoot at you, while others give you food.  I just stood there with my mouth open, utterly speechless.

Another friend told me that he and a small group of other immigrants crossed with a smuggler.  They spent about 5 days crossing, walking through the desert at night and sleeping during the day.  The group included two teenage girls, one of whom got sick.  She had a problem with her foot, she eventually stopped eating or drinking, and, ultimately, she died.

She.  Died.

The group had to leave her in the desert.  The remaining sister didn’t want to go on, so my friend carried her the rest of the way so she wouldn’t die as well.  When the group reached their destination, the girls’ father, who had sent for his daughters, learned of the tragedy that had befallen one of his girls.  He nevertheless thanked my friend for taking care of his other daughter.

Again, speechless.

Here I am writing about snorkeling and hiking and touring exotic places around the world in “The Adventures of Stephanie” when there are thousands of people going through REAL adventures.  Life or death adventures.  Risking-their-lives-for-better-opportunities adventures.

I’ve known for a long time that illegal immigration is risky, that thousands attempt it every year, and that hundreds also die from it every year.  (This compelling episode of Radiolab gives an idea of how and how many people die in the desert, and this episode shares the  stories of a couple people who attempted to cross.)  But now that I personally know some people who have gone through this, and have heard the horrific details of their stories, I am humbled, and somewhat embarrassed.  I cross borders all the time and write about my adventures teaching and living and volunteering and vacationing around the world.  But now, my adventures seem so frivolous.

I know I’m privileged, but I continue to be surprised by just how privileged.

As I write this, I’m in Honduras, on vacation.  I’ll have more self-indulgent adventures involving lakes, forests, Mayan ruins, and coral reefs, and will probably post more about them here.  But before I get to that stuff, I’d rather mark my 10-year blogging anniversary by acknowledging that my adventures, amazing as they sometimes are, pale in comparison to what many people on this planet go through.  I am lucky in ways that I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend.

The Psychosocial Support Coordinator that I worked with in Greece led us through a revealing exercise at one of our team meetings.  First, we each wrote down a few of our core characteristics – the qualities that make us who we are.  My list included traveler, foodie, Latin dancer, introvert, and teacher.  She then asked us to consider which of these characteristics would be affected if we lived in a refugee camp like the ones we were volunteering it.  I looked at my list, and realized every thing on it would be.  Traveling, food, and dancing would be impossible.  Sharing a tent or cabin with a dozen people in an overcrowded camp with basic-to-dismal living conditions would tax my introverted tendencies.  Teaching might be possible, but that’s assuming both resources and my own mental health would be available in enough supply to set up some classes.

This exercise was meant to show us how being a refugee can really take away what defines a person.  She then asked us if losing some core parts of our being might cause us to behave differently.  Of course.  I know that if I could no longer travel, dance, or enjoy food, three of the things that make me most happy, I’d probably be terrible to be around.  This exercise really helped me better understand why some refugees in the camps are difficult to work with – they’re not their normal selves.

I described this experience to some of my best friends, and one of them raised an additional interpretation.  She said “Stephanie, you have all of those things in Minnesota, but you’re miserable there.  You go out to eat, you go dancing, and you travel.  But you’re so sad there.  You’re lonely and depressed, and you sleep all the time.”

She’s not wrong.

I was working in a refugee camp and hearing terrible stories about war and violence and suffering, but I was happy and fulfilled and not lonely.  In contrast, I have a cozy home, a good job, and a comfortable life in Minnesota, but I’ve spent more than half my time here battling depression and wondering if I will ever feel like I belong here.  Is it just that I haven’t found my tribe in the land of lakes yet?  Am I doing something wrong?  How long does it take to feel like you belong somewhere, and at what point do you accept a place isn’t a good fit?  And if Minnesota isn’t the place for me, where else should I go?  Or is Minnesota not really the problem?

Sigh. I don’t have answers to any of those questions.  All I know is that it seems kind of backwards that working in a refugee camp changed me for the better in many ways, and I wish I didn’t feel so lonely and out of place in Minnesota.

 

More Refugee Snapshots

So far this year alone, over 4,000 refugees have arrived on Lesvos Island.  That’s not in all of Greece, that’s just on the island that I’m working on.  Most of these displaced people are from Syria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but people arrive from several other countries too.  Each arrival means another life jacket added to the life vest dump, and another person bringing more stories.  I can’t take photos in the refugee camps, but I can share some verbal snapshots of the stories and observations I continue to collect here.

  • While working crowd control at the medical cabin one night, I chatted quite a bit with a 23-year-old Kurdish Iraqi man.  He had just arrived a few days earlier with his mother and 4 siblings.  (His youngest brother, 9, is special needs.  One of the doctors thinks he might have cerebral palsy.)  He described to me how their boat ride was supposed to take about an hour, but ended up taking 5 because the motor didn’t have enough horsepower to match the load of people it was carrying.  They left Turkey at 4 am and arrived on Lesvos at 9 am (he concentrated on the stars to get himself through the boat ride).  When I met him, his family had just been processed out of the new arrivals holding area and were placed in the tent they would now live in, where they recognized a woman who had been on their boat.  He told me that they all joked “we thought we might die together, but now we’re living together.”  I asked him how his English was so good, and he told me he mostly taught himself, using movies and TV shows to help (Game of Thrones is his favorite).  I recruited him to be one of our interpreters, and now I often see him at the medical cabin putting his Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and English skills to use.  He’s one of those people whose light shines especially bright – friendly, smart, hard-working, and resilient.  I think he has a good chance of moving himself and his family into a better life, and I sincerely hope he does.
  • A young Iraqi man named Mustafa came to see a doctor.  He indicated he had some head pain (which sometimes means a simple headache, sometimes means general aches and pains, and is sometimes code for psychological issues – it’s hard to know for sure when the patient doesn’t speak any English).  He was clearly in a bad mood about the wait, and kept saying things to me in Arabic even though we both knew I couldn’t understand him.  Eventually we each pulled out our phones and used Google translate to hold a conversation.  As we were better able to communicate, his attitude completely changed – he started joking and flirting and asking thoughtful questions.  At one point he asked me about my life dreams. I answered, then asked him the same question.  He looked thoughtful for a moment, then started typing.  And typing.  And typing.  I got busy with some new incoming patients, and the next thing I knew, Mustafa was gone.  I was really concerned because I didn’t see him leave and didn’t know if he was in a good or bad mood when he left.  He had come in for a medical (or psychological?) complaint and left without seeing a doctor.  I had just asked him about his life dreams, which could have been a painful topic for him.  I thought about him a lot after he left, and kept an eye out for him any time I was in the camp.  About a week later, he came in helping an acquaintance to the doctor. I think I startled him by remembering his name.  I then showed him the following Arabic translation on my phone:  “I was really worried about you.  We were talking about life dreams a few nights ago, then you disappeared.  Are you ok?” He was clearly touched, assured me he was ok, and thanked me for being concerned about him.  I’ve since seen him at the medical cabin a few more times and we always chat a tiny bit via Google translate, though the last time he actually said several English words and phrases.  I complimented him on his growing English.IMG_3528
  • A Syrian family of 3 brought their adorable Greek puppy, Max, when they came to see the doctor one afternoon.  I got to cuddle him while they went in to the clinic. This prompted another waiting patient to show me photos of the husky he used to have in Syria, and then the 9 or 10 parakeets he kept as pets, and then a beautiful scenic shot of Damascus, and then a shot of soldiers sorting through rubble.  He pantomimed that a building (possibly his house?) had previously stood there.  It’s sometimes hard to remember that so many people in the camp used to have normal lives with pets and houses and jobs and cars.
  • I’m surprised at how much sexual activity there appears to be in the camp.  There are several pregnant women here (granted some of them arrived pregnant, and that may be the reason they decided to flee their countries in the first place), but some get pregnant in the camp.  The doctors have told me some women ask for birth control, but the only thing we sometimes have available are condoms, and some women say their husbands won’t use those.  I KNOW this is a cultural difference and I’m viewing this through my liberal American lenses, but I am still shocked at how some Arab families don’t practice family planning.  Given the uncertainty of their futures right now, I have a really hard time understanding this.
  • I’ve heard that rape is quite common among the patients that doctors see here.  I guess a majority of the single African women, and several of the African men, were raped during their journey to Greece.  I witnessed one patient clutching his head in agony during a long wait to see a doctor.  Finally, too frustrated to wait any longer, he picked up one of our wheelchairs and slammed it on the ground, twice.  The other waiting patients immediately scattered, I had to call the police for assistance, and the doctors ultimately sedated him and called an ambulance to take him to the hospital.  I later learned he had been raped in Kuwait.  While his psychotic episode was disturbing to see, it’s not without reason.  I suspect rapes also currently happen in the camp, and have heard prostitution exists here as well.
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This statue commemorates Lesvos’ history of receiving refugees from Turkey. As one of the Greek islands closest to Turkey, immigrants have been arriving here for over a century.

  • The family camp, Kara Tepe, has a dance party every Friday night.  I finally went to one and it was fun to see.  I enjoyed watching the men (and occasionally some of the younger women) dance to Middle Eastern music, though it bothered me a bit to see that most of the Middle Eastern women only watched.  (I know, I know, biased lenses here.)  They played some Congolese music as well, and it was interesting to see how differently the African women and children danced.  But my favorite part was watching all the little kids dance to everything.  You could literally watch them experimenting with the different dance moves they were seeing, no matter what kind of music was playing.  It was a truly cross-cultural dance party.
  • Kara Tepe is the nice camp where families live.  In addition to the weekly dance parties, you can find children’s activities, music lessons, soccer practice, game nights, arts and crafts and more there.  However, things aren’t perfect in Kara Tepe and we recently had a reminder of that.  Our group received a call to provide emergency childcare.   While a boy and his father were at the hospital (we don’t know why) the mother of the family attempted suicide.  Fortunately, it was a neighbor rather than her 3 younger kids who found her.  But, those kids needed supervision while the family got help for a couple days.  It’s easy to forget that, despite the summer camp feel in Kara Tepe, the people living there have experienced a lot of loss and trauma, just like in the rougher camps.
  • Some common vocabulary sprouts up when people from several different countries live together.  No matter how limited their English is, everyone knows the following phrases:  Moria no good, big problem, no problem, my friend, finish (meaning “finished” or “all gone”) and crazy (which I used to think was used jokingly to tease friends or mock oneself, but have learned, by witnessing psychotic episodes and seeing medical files filled with notes on psychological trauma, that there’s often quite a bit of truth behind this word).  Everyone also uses the phrase Ali Baba, which means “thief” or “stolen.”  These common words reveal a bit of what life is like as they are the ideas that residents most need to communicate with one another.  Refugee camps and alternative shelters vary greatly, but they each seem to develop a little subculture of their own.

Generosity

I have been repeatedly impressed by the generosity I’ve seen so far during my first month of volunteering at refugee camps in Greece.  It’s amazing how some people, especially those who have so little to begin with, show such a willingness to give and to help others.  Some examples:

  • Patients are asked to bring a translator (a friend or neighbor) when they visit the medical cabin in Moria if they don’t speak English themselves.  A lot of people don’t do this.  There are refugees who volunteer to work as translators for my NGO, but they are free to come and go as they wish (we don’t want to put any demands on them).  So sometimes a refugee who doesn’t speak English wants to see a doctor, and we don’t have any Arabic/Farsi/French translators available.  Sometimes there are other patients waiting who speak some English, and they agree to translate for another patient (someone they don’t even know).  I’ve seen this happen several times, including one incredibly sweet young man (Mustafa) who majored in English in Syria and then left his country after graduating.  After getting sucked in to helping 4 or 5 patients (besides himself), he finally asked, during a lull in patients, “Can we go now?  My wife has been waiting for me for an hour.”  (He has since volunteered to be an official translator with our organization.)
  • When I do a social shift in Moria, which means walking through the camp and chatting with refugees for a couple hours in the evening, some of them have offered me tea, or even food (some of them cook their own dinners over open campfires because they don’t like the admittedly undesirable food given out in the camp).  They are crammed 20 adults into a shipping container cabin and receive about $100 a month from the Greek government, yet they still want to show me some hospitality.  I’m amazed (and I always refuse, as graciously as possible).
  • I was waiting at a food truck outside Moria Camp (yes, some refugee camps have food trucks outside them) one night to join the medical team on a night shift.  The temperature had dropped into the 70s and a wind had picked up.  A man offered me his jacket.  I assume he was a refugee (and not a volunteer) because that’s the primary clientele at these food trucks, and also the more likely population to think a jacket is necessary in 70-degree weather.  I didn’t need a jacket, but I was touched nonetheless that he was willing to lend me one.
  • Speaking of food trucks, the medical team working the evening shift usually eats dinner at Stratos’s food truck.  Stratos is a gray-haired, friendly Greek man (who makes delicious falafel!).  He never charges our medical team for bottled water.  He also provides several electrical outlets so refugees can charge their phones there.
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Stratos, taking an order from one of our doctors.

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My volunteer team patronized Nikos’s restaurant one day to help support him and his charities.

  • In the better camp, Kara Tepe, NGOs give out snacks every day.  Once, while I was working a shift on kids activities, popsicles were given out.  Fareed, an incredibly friendly 16-year-old who often comes to board games in the evenings, brought me a popsicle.  THESE ARE MEANT FOR REFUGEE CHILDREN!!  He wouldn’t let me refuse it.  (I took it and then gave it to a little girl when he left.)  This is the same young man who volunteers to coach soccer for little kids in the camp, and whose sister gives basic Farsi lessons to volunteers.
  • I helped out on a self-care campaign in Kara Tepe, handing out pamphlets advising refugee families how to take care of themselves.  A Turkish/Kurdish family lived in one of the cabins I visited.  I told the woman of the house that her earrings were çok güzel (Turkish for “very beautiful”).  She said she made them in the camp and then started TAKING THEM OUT OF HER EARS TO GIVE TO ME.  I told her teşekkürler (thank you) many times, but refused to let her give me her earrings.

I’ve written before about encountering the kindness of strangers while abroad, but this is a whole other level.  The medical volunteers are using their vacation time and expertise to offer badly needed help at refugee camp clinics.  Greek locals are providing services to help refugees in their communities.  And, what I find particularly impressive, is the refugees themselves.  They are displaced people seeking asylum to start a new life in a new country.  They have little money, few possessions, and every reason to be self-interested with concern for their own questionable futures. But still, they have such big hearts.

Thousands of refugees have arrived on Lesvos island in the past couple of years.  The beaches where they land get littered with life jackets, rubber rafts, wooden boats, and other debris.  Tourism is a huge part of the Greek island economy, so the municipality of Lesvos keeps their coastlines cleaner by moving all of the rubbish to a dump site down an unmarked gravel road in the north of the island.  I went to see it the other day with a few of the doctors volunteering with me.  One of them commented “Every life vest is a story.”

I’ve been hearing a lot of stories as I talk with refugees during my volunteering shifts, so I thought I would share some of the anecdotes I’ve gathered so far.  I think the collection might personalize what life is like as a refugee and help humanize a few of the stories that each life vest holds.

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A Syrian man I often see around Moria Camp was waiting to see a doctor one night. He showed me the side of his right calf, riddled with scars, and indicated that the scars continue all the way up his leg.  He also does not have a right hand.  His explanation:  “Bomb.”

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A Kurdish teenager in Kara Tepe Camp told me she and her family received their asylum papers and will move to mainland Greece in a month.  She doesn’t want to go.  When I asked her why, she said she has a lot of friends here in the camp (and I suspect an Afghani boy of interest is also a factor).  I’m guessing she’s probably moved a lot in her life, and is facing yet another move to an unknown place.  In the camp, she knows what life is like.  She has friends and activities and fun, even if she’s living in a refugee camp.

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A man from the Democratic Republic of Congo explained to me (and later showed me on my phone) how he took a 20-minute boat ride from Kinshasa across the border to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo.  From there he made his way up to Turkey, and eventually to Moria Camp here in Greece.  He stressed how rich the DRC is, full of diamonds, copper, tin, wood, and other resources I couldn’t understand in French, and he lamented all of the problems his country is facing with war, famine, economics, and corruption.  There’s just no opportunity there.

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I spoke with a charming young man in Moria Camp.  He was a personal trainer, body building champion, and gym owner in Afghanistan.  He told me about the car and motorcycles he owned, and that his family had 3 houses.  The Taliban killed his father, so his family decided to leave.  They are now in Turkey running a restaurant, but he is trying to get to Europe so he can open a gym there. While waiting for his paperwork to be processed, he volunteers with a couple NGOs at the camp as a translator.

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The Afghani teenagers who come to art and board games night in Kara Tepe Camp crack me up.  One shared an English song he likes with me: “Gangnam Style.”  He was incredulous that it’s not English.  Others debated with me about whether Eminem or 50 Cent is a better rapper (one said he looked it up on the internet so he knows the number 1 rapper is Eminem).

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I checked in two different 30-somethings from Africa to see doctors about their type I diabetes. The doctor told me later that each man started crying in the medical cabin.  The doctors are trying to get these men marked as physically vulnerable so they can be moved to better conditions.

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An Iraqi man told me that he has 4 kids and a wife back in Iraq.  He explained that his wife will give birth to their 5th child in a month.  I was wondering later why he would leave his family.  Some doctors explained that many men travel as refugees on their own, with the hope that they will eventually be granted asylum somewhere and can then bring their families to Europe directly, rather than having their wife and kids travel through the more dangerous refugee routes.

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These aren’t even life jackets; they’re pool floaties for kids. 😦

Self-mutilation (cutting) is really common among the refugee population.  I’ve heard that some of them do it because they think that having more visible health problems will get them through the asylum process faster (this isn’t true).  I suspect some of them also do it as a way to try to manage their psychological pain.  I’ve seen a surprising number of men with cutting scars on their arms or legs.  So far I’ve only seen one man brought to the medical cabin with fresh cuts – he was drunk and had sliced the back of his neck and shoulders with several sloppy criss-crossed lacerations.  The doctors stitched him up the best they could.

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Prepare yourself, this is the most tragic story I’ve heard here so far.  There’s a young Iraqi man in Moria Camp who is notorious among our medical team because of his many physical and psychological problems.  While in Iraq, he saw his whole family murdered, and he himself was shot in the face.  Miraculously, he survived.  The bullet remains lodged behind his cheekbone (I’ve seen the x-rays), probably because removing it would have been too risky because of the areas of his brain it’s near.  He’s had reconstructive surgery on his cheek and jaw.  Unsurprisingly, this man has severe psychological trauma.  His roommates and friends in the camp keep a close eye on him, but he often ends up at the medical cabin in a raging panic attack.  He’s been known to pound on walls, scream, knock over tables, and threaten medics.  I’ve met him a couple times when he’s been in a good mood or only mildly agitated, so I’ve never seen one of his famed fits.  He’s actually quite sweet when he’s having a good day.  I can’t comprehend how someone can live through an experience like that – physically or emotionally.  I know the doctors sometimes struggle to care for him because he’s such a difficult case and they have limited resources, but my heart just breaks for him.

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