Concetta,

I finally submitted my application yesterday and had a question for you. I am allergic to bee stings and I’m having a hard time finding any information on what the ramifications may be for this condition when I face medical evaluations and/or placement concerns. I have heard that I will be probably be disqualified from serving in Sub Saharan Africa and other places. Just wondering whether you may be able to provide any insight in my chances or if you ever came across someone in the same situation while you were a recruiter. Thanks for any help you may be able to provide.

WJC

Hi there WJC.,

First, Congratulations on submitting your application. You are ON YOUR WAY!! You also happen to have highlighted one of the most talked about, confusing and sometimes contentious aspects of becoming (and being) a Peace Corps Volunteer….. The Medical Evaluation.

Let’s set the stage… remember the two truisms about Peace Corps 1) Peace Corps only goes where it is requested and 2) Volunteers only do that which they are asked to do- in other words, the US does not send “development swat teams” in to unsuspecting countries to decide what would be “best” for said country’s improvement.   Like most things Peace Corps, there is a third truism- Peace Corps can only send you where you are medically qualified to serve.

This is where the difficulty begins. If you grew up in the States, you are used to a world of a cure for what ails you- a pill for this, an epi pen for that.  While many countries where volunteers serve have very good medical systems, unless Peace Corps can be certain that the country requesting your skill set can support your medical condition, they can’t- in good faith- let you get on the plane.

Does this mean that you can’t become a volunteer? Absolutely NOT.  It does however mean that it might take you a little longer and you might have to broaden your horizons on where you’d like to serve (remember that my advice is to be as broad as possible in this category to give yourself the best chances you can).

Let me tell you 3 quick things (see there’s the 3 thing- it’s contagious after a while).

1) When I arrived in Bangkok to begin my Peace Corps service we were sitting around in the hotel getting to know one another and somehow, someone brought up their asthma. I said “Hey I have asthma too- pretty mild, but I do have it” and the person next to me said “Me too.” So sort of as a joke someone else said “Hey if you have asthma raise your hand!” And well over half the people in the room shot up their hands.  We joked that PC Thailand must have been the ‘Asthmatics R Us” country… and trust me, it wasn’t due to the stellar air quality in Bangkok- it was because Thailand has one of the best medical systems in Southeast Asia and was well equipped to deal with volunteers with Asthma.

2) Peace Corps is an agency of the Federal Government and as such is subject to the American’s with Disabilities Act. That means that they must make a very strong effort to reasonably accommodate all sorts of medical situations.  When I was a recruiter, I placed plenty of people with allergies (food allergies, animal allergies, seasonal allergies), asthma, other conditions requiring medicine as well as a few hearing impaired folks. So it can and does happen.

3) Finally, unless it is coming out of the mouth of a Peace Corps medical evaluator, don’t believe what you hear. If you talk to any recruiter and lots of current and former volunteers, they all probably have a “war story” about dealing with the medical evaluation- and most are probably true. There are thousands and thousands of applicants and trying to make sure each is medically qualified and  technically skilled to serve in X country is sort of like a GRE question on steroids. It gets confusing, people get rigid, and sometimes you need a second opinion.  But here’s the thing- in all of my years as a recruiter I never (ever) thought it was a good idea to “go to the mattresses” to send an applicant to a country that wasn’t equipped to deal with this or her particular medical issue.  Remembering that the medical team is there to help you become a volunteer and STAY a healthy volunteer can really help with the process.

You are on your way and definitely keep me posted!

Concetta