Imagine dropping everything to dedicate your life to your nation and a Third World country for 27 months. Imagine leaving behind family, friends, daily luxuries, and necessities to voluntarily help in a place and under circumstances most people would never intentionally endure.
Now imagine contracting a virus during your time volunteering for others that ravages your autonomic nervous system. Imagine not being able to stay upright for more than four hours at a time, forgetting memories that you cherish and passing out without warning. Imagine being Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) Meghan Wolf.
Meghan and I served together in Malawi, Africa, as health volunteers after graduating from college in 2007. We roomed together throughout training, lived in the same homestay village, learned the Chichewa language together, and became very close before we were each assigned to separate areas of the country for our service — Meghan to the south in Maliera and me in central Malawi in a village called Thonje. Once we were each dropped off in our respective villages, we never saw each other again.
Both of us ended up leaving Malawi prior to the end of service for different reasons; for me it was due to unsafe conditions in my village that the Peace Corps refused to help me with; for Meghan, the circumstances were much more devastating.
A Korean-American adopted when she was just a baby, Meghan is nothing if not grateful for her upbringing and life so far. “I was adopted to a First World country — I would have been dead in my hut had my mother not gotten a hold of someone in [the United States] when I was dying,” she recounted. “If I had been a [Korean] villager, I would be dead. So many people have it much worse off than me.”
Knowing of her beginnings is what inspired Meghan to apply for the Peace Corps to begin with; unfortunately, in her ninth month in-country, Meghan fell ill. She explained:
“I was so sick; every ride to the hospital in a luxury sedan on paved roads was still hell for me and they refused to let me get medications. The one I needed for my nausea costs $27 a pill; they said no meds until I had a diagnosis. Well, that took over three months at a University hospital. Thank goodness for my neurologist at the end. ‘Autonomic dysfunction’ is pretty much unheard of by most doctors. There is no treatment and no cure. They can only give different medications to alleviate symptoms. It’s different for everyone. Mine is bad.”
Likely the result of a virus she contracted in Malawi, Meghan has and continues to experience symptoms including tremors similar to Parkinson’s; chronic pain; dry heaving; vomiting; abdominal cramping; constipation; loss of memory; loss of coordination; falling; passing out; freezing muscles; low blood pressure with irregular heart rate; the inability to control her body temperature; and the inability to be vertical for more than four hours at any given time. To cope, she is on medications to slow down her brain processing which has helped with the vomiting, nausea and retching.
“Basically I’m a really old person who should be in a nursing home,” the 27-year-old says, having been diagnosed with POTS (Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome), Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, neuropathy, fibromyalgia and sleep disorders, among other ailments.
One might think that the Peace Corps has likely helped Meghan with her medical needs since returning to the U.S., especially considering that her diagnoses and symptoms prevent her from holding down a job.
This is not the case.
In Meghan’s words:
“The Peace Corps disowned me once I left Malawi…I’m allowed nine ICD-9 codes, which are how doctors bill patients. I have a whole lot more. So that’s what the government covers, otherwise I cannot get health insurance. I cannot even afford Medicare; it’s $300 a month and covers nothing. I’m not eligible for life insurance and I’m not allowed to work. Social Security says I am eligible for $29 a month and they refuse to even pay me that, even after appeal after appeal and a judge ruled in my favor. They give you the run around and there’s nothing you can do. I spend 45 minutes on hold only to get a person who doesn’t really speak English and cannot help me in the least. They tell you they will call you back and never do. They have you send in mounds of paperwork on shoestring deadlines.”
Meghan now struggles daily with no end in sight. All the more troubling is the fact that she is not alone. On the contrary, she is one of dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of other RPCVs who have come back to the U.S. injured and sick, only to find out that the government they had dedicated themselves to has forsaken them.
Nancy Tongue, founder of Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers, related her own struggle that she has been dealing with since the 1980s:
“I got sick at the end of my time in Chile (1982) and have struggled to get help from the Peace Corps and the Federal government for nearly three decades…I may also never be able to work again and it is truly a challenge to live out my life at poverty level (or just enough above it on Federal Workers’ Comp that keeps us ineligible for Medicaid), while fighting to get every bill paid.”
Tongue’s site describes the problem as having started with the Peace Corps’ beginnings in 1961:
“No one, when the Peace Corps was founded, had the foresight to create an appropriate infrastructure to care for the acutely or chronically ill or injured. When our Americans went to the front lines to help improve the lives of others in impoverished areas of the world, the fact that they could return home broken from diseases such as tuberculosis, parasites, meningitis, encephalitis, malaria, side effects from anti-malarial medications and other rare tropical and infectious diseases that exist in the 139 countries in which volunteers have served, seems not to have been considered.”
There are multiple testimonials on the site Tongue has set up that intend to raise awareness about this systemic problem that has not been dealt with properly now for over 50 years.
One of the RPCVs who are involved in Tongue’s organization is Roger Landry, who served in Zambia, Africa, between February 1995 and September 1995 at the age of 55. While serving, he was involved in a motorcycle training accident on June 6, 1995, that left him with right-sided sciatica; he has been experiencing numbness in the right anterolateral thigh and right medial calf, and difficulty walking on uneven surfaces as a result and these symptoms have only worsened with age. He has been diagnosed with a Class II gait disorder, as well as a loss of function due to sensory deficit/pain in the right lower extremity, leaving him with a total disability of 25% of his entire body.
Now 71, Landry has been dealing with the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) for over 18 years with nothing to show for it. Landry explained:
“Because I am dealing with the DOL/OWCP, I live in poverty. Because I was not a lawyer, I do not write my appeals in a lawyerly manner, so I get a reply, ‘Has not met the burden of proof.’ When I ask them, ‘Where can I fix my appeal to be suitable?’ they tell me to go on the website. I suffer from PTSD from my injury and dealing with the DOL/OWCP. I’m always being denied help. This is no way to treat a volunteer. I am not ashamed to be a return volunteer, but I am ashamed on how we were all dumped into the DOL/OWCP. When I got out of the Peace Corps, I was not able to walk; it took the DOL/OWCP six years to admit I was injured in service — six years that caused scar tissue to form and made it impossible to be repaired. I started to fall without notice and was allowed $1.35 a day on food stamps. In December 2003 I was awarded a 7% disability. It is criminal the way a volunteer is treated. We gave you our lives and ended up in poverty for life.”
While Peace Corps volunteers knowingly and willingly agree to live at the poverty level during service, they do not agree to do so upon their return to the States, nor should they have to.
According to the DOL website, “The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) provides federal employees injured in the performance of duty with workers’ compensation benefits, which include wage-loss benefits for total or partial disability, monetary benefits for permanent loss of use of a schedule member, medical benefits, and vocational rehabilitation.”
However, not all RPCVs are eligible for FECA. As explained on the Peace Corps website, “As a returned Volunteer, you may be eligible for certain benefits under [FECA] if the illness or injury is related to your activities as a Volunteer, or is incurred during overseas service. FECA is administered by the [OWCP], [DOL]. OWCP, not the Peace Corps, decides whether you qualify for medical treatment and compensation under this Act.”
After requesting a comment from the Peace Corps on this situation, I received a response from the Director of the Office of Communications Maureen Knightly. While Knightly could not comment on specific volunteers and their cases due to privacy, she stipulated the following:
“The Peace Corps is committed to providing the best medical care and support to all volunteers throughout their service. Once volunteers complete their Peace Corps service, however, the agency does not have legal authority to provide them long-term medical care. Instead, all return volunteers are eligible for workers compensation, including medical care for service-related conditions and disability payments, through [FECA]… The Peace Corps provides on-going assistance to former volunteers in working with DOL. The Peace Corps is also working with the Government Accountability Office [GAO] to explore ways to improve the FECA process for former volunteers and it continues to work with the [DOL] to better coordinate FECA claims.”
National Peace Corps Association President Kevin Quigley also issued the following comment:
“We are hopeful that a GAO study that is underway will provide guidance to the Peace Corps and U.S. Labor Department that will ensure that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers seriously injured or ill during service receive the care they deserve. Just as our nation expects proper care and support for those serving in our military, we should expect no less for those who serve in the Peace Corps.”
It is the hope of Tongue and all RPCVs who continue to encounter red tape in dealing with their medical needs that change is coming, and soon. As Meghan Wolf says, “I wanted to ameliorate the ‘have-nots’ situations, not become one. The government likes good propaganda for its institutions — I wish it would look at individuals first instead of the organization, because that’s where it falls apart.”