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The Vancouver Sun Reviews Calvin White’s Letters from the Land of Fear

letters from the land of fearIn his recent review of Calvin White’s Letters from the Land of Fear for the Vancouver Sun, Brett Josef Grubisic speaks about Calvin White’s experiences in Central Asia working as a mental health specialist with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients. He comments on White’s purpose in traveling to Central Asia, on the difficulties he encountered while there, and on the beauty he witnessed within a context of fear, suffering and death.

Grubisic speaks about White’s difficult and uncertain circumstances as he arrived in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, and on his strong resolution to assist the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients as a mental health specialist.

He explains that despite “suffering from travel fatigue, virtually uninformed about his new temporary home, [White had] a sobering certainty of purpose — ‘to work as a mental health specialist with the [Doctors Without Borders] team there to address an epidemic of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis’ ”

Furthermore, Grubisic elaborates on the psychological difficulties that the patients encountered during the long and difficult treatment, and on the importance of White’s role in alleviating their worries and fears as they battled the disease.

“When the TB drugs do work, they have debilitating side-effects that discourage continued use (and the full treatment takes years) while encouraging folk remedies like pounding back slaps and drinking toddler urine. As a consequence, a pattern quickly emerges: through translators White talks with — consoles, advises, entertains — terribly thin and deeply ailing (and, often, quite young) patients, and aids as well as he can.”

Nevertheless, despite the severity of the fear and suffering which he witnessed, White was able to find beauty and intimacy in his surroundings.

“Unexpectedly, White calls Letters a story of beauty and intimacy.”

Grubisic elaborates on White’s account of the “gloriously transcendent” moments he shared with patients despite being “immersed in a ‘plague of misery’ ”.

“While the disease makes them all face the certainty of their undeniable limitations and temporariness, as White writes, the instances of loving communion are potent reminders of what actually counts.”
**

For 11 months Calvin White worked for Doctors Without Borders as a mental health specialist in the off-the-radar region of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan. Unlike the higher profile emergency situations which draw that international humanitarian organization’s attention, the milieu for White’s mission was the quiet, slow death in an epidemic of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. White takes the reader inside the daily heartbeat of humans we’ve never heard of but come to see as sharing the same pulse. It is a remarkable journey of intimacy and hope, one that reconfigures our understanding of sadness and, ultimately, reaffirms the common spirit of humanity.

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