03.12.2018 Kevin is volunteering as a Marketing, Communications and Fundraising Adviser with the Elwood J Euart Association in Vanuatu. He will complete his assignment in January 2020. 

We’ve got a much prized video interview at my Vanuatu workplace, the South Pacific WWII project office in Luganville, Espiritu Santo. It’s of 99 year old veteran Milton Staley, survivor of the famous Coolidge sinking in October 1942.

Poor Milton. When war came calling on the US in December 1941, he immediately applied to join up. And was declared 4F. Unfit for combat basically. It may have been the spectacles he wore. In modern terms, he was not deemed able

 I think you’d call me 4F plus quite a bit. That’s if it was 1942 and I wanted to join the war. I don’t know how rigorous that first medical was for Milton, but you’d suspect it was pretty much a two-minute say ah and a stethoscope over the lungs.

When I and my partner Leesa contemplated taking on this two-year VSA posting, we knew there’d be a medical or several to pass.

Our worry was that my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – oh, and the open heart surgery I’d had 18 months earlier – might stop us being accepted.

Turns out the heart stuff was not an issue, since my cardiology card was marked clean.

But the arthritis turned into quite a marathon. In the end, my medical clearance only came through a couple of days before Christmas, by which time we’d already packed in our jobs and packed up the house. Not ideal for your peace of mind.

The argument I think was whether my arthritis could limit my ability to do my assigned role, whether I could manage the condition while overseas, and what might happen if it worsened.

RA leaves me sore. I can sometimes resemble a 55-year-old in a 75-year-old’s body. My body is not so flexible, and that tends to make me cautious in how I move.

Talking with several specialists, there was both the medical issue – and the philosophical one. The latter being, there would be added risk taking on a role in a country with much less of a medical support system – but as well, surely life is for the living.

That’s a big concept. Because personally, there’s a difference between accepting and living with the condition, and doing your best to resolve it – and the alternative of ever-shrinking safe horizons.

I am not sure that the philosophical argument sways doctors, but we were delighted to finally get my all clear.

The obvious rider was that I needed to keep monitoring my health.

How has that gone in reality? Well, there’s the good and bad. If you embrace local produce, which is organic because there isn’t any other way, then as in my case, there’s a health upside. Even without me doing some careful Facebook curating, friends in New Zealand said I certainly looked healthier.

My inflammation levels at one point actually dropped dramatically. We’re not 100 per cent sure why. Was it what we were eating? Was it a change in stress levels?

Now I have a pretty sedentary role; the occasional bush trips have been carefully handled. I envy those who are still mountain goats, but you just need to know your limitations. However the uneven footpaths of Luganville and the crab holes in the nearby park are probably bigger hazards to my health than anything else.

As for health care, well there’s the reassurance of the excellent on-call insurance phone line for anything serious. Use it even if it isn’t that serious. It could become so.

I also have my partner to act as my health monitor. If you are going alone, find someone to act as a proxy if you can, that voice who reminds you not to get complacent.

Do accept the reality that getting your medications and regular checks will take time and more effort. So plan ahead, and don’t be slack as I sometimes have!

If you have a disability, then accept you are going to be asked about it. A lot. My partner Leesa said it was hilarious to watch people seeing me on a sore day, and staring and staring. My nickname among the local taxi drivers became The Old Man (the beard didn’t help either).

Kevin and Leesa Feb 2018

Leesa Roy and Kevin McCarthy

Just this week, as I was walking quite gingerly down our steepish road to get a taxi, a driver pulled up next to me. “What’s wrong with your knee?’ he asked.

I got in, and as we drove towards Luganville, and I explained, he quickly laid a hand on my knee and asked if I believed in God. This is by no means an unusual question in Vanuatu.

Turns out that he’d had a disability in his right knee but faith and time had restored him. Whether you’re secular or not, it occurred to me that what we’d set out on was an act of faith, Faith that we’d be able to handle my disability, and whatever else a posting throws at you, without too much drama.

Ten months in, I reckon we’re repaying that faith.

As for Milton? Well, he eventually got his call up. Went to war, survived the Coolidge sinking, survived a life threatening illness while in the South Pacific, and went on to be part of the D Day landings. He was awarded a medal for combat heroism.

Not bad for a 4F.