Thrive President TED LANKESTER wrote the Traveller’s Good Health GuideAs a doctor and international health worker, he’s supported countless humanitarian and aid workers through the physical, emotional and spiritual toll that their work can sometimes take. As we launch our new “Wellness Medicals”, Ted has written this fictional diary of Tom, to share some of his experiences of how (and how not!) to thrive in humanitarian work. 


Entry 1 - Starting to worry

As a senior leader in our humanitarian aid agency, one thing that makes me proud is the care we take of our staff – and not just those working on long-term, front-line and insecure locations. For me, it’s a no-brainer that missionaries, aid workers and other long-term travellers should have careful health checks before they venture abroad. And our agency arranges that. Which I guess it should, given that we’re called “Support All People”! 

Well, I presume we arrange it. Given my role, I should probably make sure. For that matter, I should also check they have a check-up on return too. I still remember a colleague who nearly died from malaria a week after getting back! As I recall, he didn’t have a check-up on return.


Entry 2 – Alarming talk by the coffee machine

Last week a colleague of mine claimed that those who work at headquarters, but make frequent trips abroad, often have worse health and greater long term risks than the aid workers we send out.  A few years back there was a programme about this on the BBC World Service. I always thought my own health risks were pretty insignificant, but this makes me wonder, does it apply to me? 

At the moment I’m prepping for my next overseas trip. It’s five days from now. It’s only a short one – just a week to sort out some tricky problems, deal with a safeguarding issue and spend some time with two rather stressed country managers. Before I go, I’ve got all my day-to-day work to do as well and (don’t tell my colleagues) I’m still writing up a proposal following my last trip three weeks ago.  This means my partner and our three teenage kids will get even less time with me than usual. The other night my partner Mandy sighed “we’re getting used to this”.


Entry 3 – Off to the airport after a bad sleep

I often sleep badly the night before the flight, but I had some last minute prep to do last night so it’s even worse than usual. I get up early and skip breakfast, but in a spare half hour at the airport I grab a sugary coffee and some nice buttery croissants. 

The plane is an hour late. I normally don’t eat airplane food because I’m so busy on my laptop, but the thought of some lunch and one or two small bottles of wine is too tempting. It’s a high fat meal, but it’s tasty, and so just this once I’m ignoring the calories and going for it. Besides, I have three hours to wait at the airport for my second flight. 

I always tell our staff to avoid salads when travelling: you can’t be sure how safe they are, even in high-class hotels and airports, and the thought of diarrhoea and vomiting doesn’t bear thinking about. Conveniently, there’s an airport burger bar. Biting into the meat and cheese I recall recently promising the kids I’d become a vegetarian. They’re very climate-aware. As am I of course, but, well, “just this once”!

I arrive at my destination feeling pretty jet-lagged (it’s a west-east flight). I have an evening meeting before crashing into bed. I don’t sleep well: If I’d had more prep time and a better sleep the night before, that might have helped.

Then it’s four days of meetings, sorting out the safeguarding issue (which is more complex than I imagined) and troubleshooting some other problems. I’m also seeing what I can do for my two managers, though our agency’s tight budgets means I can’t really offer what they want. But the hotel is nice, though even the healthiest meals give me the bloated feeling that I’ve become a bit too used to, especially since stopping rugby. The double cheesecake didn’t help.

Just before the flight home I decide to go for the salad. It looks great, and might balance out the burgers. It’s a risk, but I’ll be back home in just a few hours anyway. The flight’s a bit turbulent. I’m used to that, but annoyingly the passenger next to me got quite stressed. He had a streaming cold as well.


Entry 4 – Back home, tired out

I get back very early in the morning. Mandy kindly picks me up – an unusual encouragement from her. I decide to have the day at home – checking emails and making calls, but at least nodding to the kids when they get back from school. I don’t take any ‘time off in lieu’, because delaying my report writing and “hanging around at home” seems more stressful than trying to get on top of the job (Mandy doesn’t get this).

It’s the first evening back in the office, and just as I’m ready to go home, my line manager (the Deputy CEO) asks if she can have a word. I panic (is it redundancy? there’s a lot of that about because of the donor fatigue problem so many of our agencies are facing). But no, she’s wondering if I could fit in another trip in ten days’ time. It’s apparently urgent and “just up my street”. I groan “OK” but decide not to tell Mandy until tomorrow.

At breakfast she kindly says yes (she keeps looking down at my belt – I can’t thing why, my fly is done up!). However, she says there’s one condition: this weekend we plan our next holiday – an active one not just lying on a beach. The kids are listening in and one says “I’ll believe thatwhen it happens”.


Entry 5 – Bad news in the shower

Back home again that evening I take a shower. I look down and see that it’s even harder than usual to see my feet – that paunch is growing. But “what to do?” as my Indian friends would say! I’ll have a think. 


Read part-two of the blog here