Out of grief came Africa

After Vancouver nurse’s husband died, she answered a call in Somaliland

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 
photoJoanne and Michael Antonelli

As a nurse, Joanne Antonelli has held hands with countless people whose loved ones died.

“I thought I knew grief,” she said. “I had no idea.”

On Oct. 18, 2008, her 47-year-old husband, Michael, was away on a church men’s retreat in the Columbia River Gorge. Her phone rang. She’s a night-shift worker, so she often doesn’t pick up. On this day, she did. It was her church’s pastor. Something was wrong with Michael and he needed to go to the hospital.

He never made it that far.

She learned later that Michael took off his oxygen mask as paramedics worked on him and said, “Tell the guys it’s OK, and tell Joanne I love her.” Then he lost consciousness.

Her husband’s sudden death of a heart attack threw everything Antonelli thought she knew into question — her faith in God, her plans for her life.

If you go:

What: Joanne Antonelli will deliver a sermon about God guiding as she coped with the loss her husband and volunteered in Africa.

When: 8:30 and 11 a.m. Oct. 17

Where: St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 5607 Gher Road, Vancouver.

Information: 360-892-7160.

“I thought he was going to be here forever and we were going to grow old together,” she said. “What do you do with that? You go to Africa.”

• • •

Michael and Joanne met through her sister. He invited her to go see Elton John. She wasn’t sure about him, but she wanted to see the concert. Michael asked Joanne to marry him 12 days later. Crazy as it seemed to her, she said “yes.” They were engaged for a year before marrying in 1982.

Their 26-year marriage was a partnership, she said. As she climbed the nursing ranks, he held various jobs without pursuing a profession. She made more money than he did, but he never cared. He was the primary caregiver for their three daughters, now in their 20s. He also volunteered at their church, St. Andrew Lutheran. He helped establish the Winter Hospitality Overflow program, through which St. Andrew and St. Paul Lutheran provide shelter for the homeless. He spent many nights at the churches. “He knew the homeless guys by name,” Antonelli said.

When Michael died, she beat herself up. “I’m a nurse. I should have known — Was he having chest pain?”

First she was numb. Then anger ripped through her. A bone-deep, ever-present anguish set in.

“I have to do something to jump-start my life,” realized Antonelli, 48. “If I go inward and stay inside of myself, I wouldn’t get up in the morning.”

The answer came in a book she read with friends early this year. Actually, most of them didn’t finish “Half the Sky” in time for their usual book club meeting. But instead of setting the book aside and moving on to the next one, Antonelli kept reading Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s account of the plight of women around the world. Antonelli e-mailed several of the relief organizations highlighted in the book to offer her help.

She quickly received a message back from Edna Adan, Somalia’s former first lady. Adan used her own life savings to open a hospital in Somaliland, a de facto independent republic within Somalia. Adan invited Antonelli to come teach young women about leadership.

Antonelli obtained a month-long leave of absence from her job as a nursing supervisor at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. Her daughters were apprehensive about their only remaining parent traveling to a region of Africa notorious for conflict. But they learned more as Antonelli researched for her trip. Somaliland is a relatively peaceful part of Somalia. And Antonelli would be accompanied by an armed guard outside the gated hospital compound.

Still, it all seemed scary. Antonelli’s only previous international travel was to London.

“I need to do something that’s so out there that does something positive with this grief,” she reasoned. “I am not going to stop living, even though there are days I want to. So what would Michael want me to do? He’d want me to get off my butt and do something.”

• • •

After 36 hours of travel, Antonelli arrived in Hargeisa July 31. In the chaotic airport, she connected with a man who works for Adan. He translated for her, and told her whom to pay, how much and when to show her passport.

In addition to volunteering her time, Antonelli footed the bills for her trip. She had agreed to pay Adan $12.50 a day for meals and lodging at the hospital. As she settled in to a dorm room with a bed covered in mosquito netting, she began to feel homesick. She wondered, What am I doing here? She soon fell into a rhythm. During the day, she made rounds at the hospital and taught classes; at night, she wrote a blog, prayed and sat with her thoughts.

She struggled with teaching Adan’s nursing and secretarial students about leadership. While Adan is a “force of nature” who commands respect from both women and men who work for her — remarkable in a conservative Muslim country — the students at her hospital have a lot to overcome, Antonelli said.

“There are so many barriers to teaching these women that Edna is trying to address,” she said. “How do you teach critical thinking skills to a group of women who were taught that they don’t matter, that they don’t have a voice? These women were never taught they could be leaders. They were taught, ‘You just do what you’re told.’”

Antonelli felt a sense of accomplishment when she could coax a question from a student in a class.

She marveled at what Edna Adan Maternity Hospital — its formal name, even though it treats men as well — has been able to accomplish with hand-me-downs and donations.

The wheelchairs are fashioned out of white plastic lawn chairs. The hospital must handle its own medical waste. Placentas are buried in a pit. Needles are incinerated on site. Doctors use ketamine, an anaesthesia primarily used for animals in this country, to perform Cesarean sections there.

She learned about letting go. She saw a 74-year-old man diagnosed with complete heart block, in which the chambers of the heart aren’t pumping together effectively. In the U.S., he would receive a pacemaker and drugs. In Somaliland, doctors told the family to either put him on a plane to neighboring Djibouti or Ethiopia for surgery — or make him comfortable at home and wait for the end. The man died that night at home with his family by his side.

“They have a better concept that death is inevitable. You get to a point where you say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Antonelli said. “People in America feel everything can be fixed, everything should be fixed. It can’t. Death happens.”

When it does, even if it’s the expected death of an elderly relative, she saw mourners at the Somaliland hospital wail and bang their heads. They expressed their grief freely and publicly.

“Here, when you do your screaming, you have to do it privately,” she said.

She continued to work through her own grief on the trip. She sprinkled some of her husband’s ashes under a flowering tree in Adan’s garden inside the hospital compound. She began to see a future for herself, one that involves more trips volunteering abroad.

“I came back realizing I’m stronger than I thought,” she said. “The contributions I made in the big picture aren’t going to change things for these people. But it did a lot for me.

“It proved to me that I could keep living.”