Editor’s Note: I first met Jim Mielke about 20 years ago at the East West Center in Honolulu. I had just washed ashore in Hawaii from San Francisco and Jim, a native of Buffalo, was finishing his doctorate in Public Health at the University of Hawaii. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa, Jim and I had a lot of common experiences in the South Pacific and became fast friends. Jim had suffered a great deal as a young man and had learned to live with a disability. The lesson is that his disability that ceased to become an issue. In a sense he wore it on his sleeve. After graduation he left Hawaii and had a successful career as a public health doc in Southeast Asia. He is just on the cusp of publishing his memoirs and Hawaii Reporter will publish this first of a two part series that will introduce Jim what I’m hoping will be a growing readership.
by Jim Mielke
I can still recall feeling like a new man almost immediately upon waking up with my ileostomy (a surgically created opening in the abdominal wall, with an external abdominal pouch to collect intestinal (fecal) output). Suddenly, I was free from years of pain and misery lasting from age 14 to 19. When I finally got my bag at age 19, I recall thinking, why did they wait so long? For the next three years, I was in and out of several different hospitals for 11 major ostomy-related surgeries, including total removal of the large intestine and rectum, while also struggling to withdraw from the addictive medications prescribed to me over the years.
During these hospital stays, I was sometimes called upon to informally counsel others facing ostomy surgery or recovering from surgery. One of the common concerns of the men I counseled related to sex, and like any normal young guy, I was pretty juiced up – chasing nurses down the ward with my red and white striped baggie flapping in the breeze. So I suppose the hospital staff felt that I could at least be a positive boost to these other guys. Following the ostomy surgeries, life simply took off with my fully recovered and excellent health.
I re-entered university in Colorado in 1980, having been forced to withdraw earlier for health reasons, and managed to complete a BA in Recreation, with a minor in Camping – all the fun stuff! Like many young people entering university, I had very little idea of what I wanted to do with my life, with no clear direction or ambition to pursue specific academic training or any particular profession. My purpose was simply to enjoy life, and to seek fulfillment by helping others find a healthy balance of work and play – and to live each day to the fullest.
I first learned about overseas volunteer opportunities with the YMCA while working as a summer employee or “Emp” at the Silver Bay Association, a YMCA Family Conference Center located on beautiful Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. The YMCA’s core emphasis on a healthy body, mind and spirit has also clearly played a key role in setting my life’s course.
Early exposure to this holistic understanding of health and wellness has influenced my personal lifestyle as well as my choice of work, first in recreation, and later in international health and development assistance. These principles, embodied also in the “Silver Bay Spirit” continue to provide a firm foundation – at times an anchor in the storm – and guidance through an expanding array of challenges and unique experiences that can be known only by living them.
Soon after graduating in 1982, I left my job as the Youth Program Coordinator at a local YMCA near Denver, Colorado, and headed off to Sri Lanka on what was to be a 6-week summer internship with the Colombo YMCA – leading outdoor recreation and life skills programs for disadvantaged youth. During this time, I applied for and was repeatedly turned down by the American Peace Corps.
They did not understand that I was applying FROM Sri Lanka – and sent me form letters about “the risks” of working overseas with an ileostomy, and a final absurd one claiming that their MDs in Washington had “examined” me and found me “unfit” for Peace Corps. This was such an insult to my new-found health. Prior to leaving the USA, my personal physician had described me as “healthier than 95 percent of the population.”
Eventually, I went on to work with other voluntary organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and sent a Christmas card each year to the Peace Corps Director in Washington, DC with photos of me working with Peace Corps volunteers to call attention to their global policy barring ostomates from overseas assignments. At one point, the Peace Corps Director visited Western Samoa while I was living and working there. Remembering me from the Christmas cards, she formally invited me to join the Peace Corps. But by then I was beyond volunteering with the Peace Corps.
For the next 8 years, I worked with various voluntary organizations in 15 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In general, nothing was planned – there was no grand strategy, no burning ambition, life-long dream or goal to achieve other than a desire to continue living this incredible, fulfilling lifestyle out in the world. It all just happened. I came into these experiences largely by chance and without any prior technical international development training – with no formal pre-conditioning academically or professionally.
Thus, arriving as a “clean slate” my approach to each new situation was that of being open to learning from my experiences – learning by doing, and therefore naturally practicing what I later read about when I returned to school – the importance of sitting down with the local people, observing, listening, learning, as well as sharing whatever I had to offer.
Although clearly an outsider, I caught some glimpses of local situations and perspectives – working hardest at learning language, (during this time I picked up working levels of Samoan, Indonesian and Thai languages; later on, I picked up basic Khmer language and have also become proficient in Vietnamese language), which further facilitated my understanding about some aspects of the world, about people, about culture and about life – a kind of understanding that can only be gained from living these experiences.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series