A Call for Reform in the Peace Corps

by Emma Thieme Aug 3, 2014

The Peace Corps is experiencing a lot of public criticism lately. The New York Times has been conducting an examination of the organization for months, digging up audit records and interviewing past volunteers and their parents. The February 2013 death of 23-year-old Philip Castle, a rural-China-based volunteer, has just recently been seeing a lot of attention.

According to The New York Times’ findings, Castle had complained three months before his death of gastrointestinal issues and rapid weight loss to his Peace Corps health provider. However, he wasn’t actually brought into the hospital until he collapsed and went into a coma one day in Cheng Du. He was deemed brain-dead and taken off life support just a few days later.

The Peace Corp “took the unusual step” of hiring an outside American expert to dig into what really happened. Reports showed that Castle’s health provider was slow to call for help when he became severely ill, and when an ambulance was finally called it got lost on its way to retrieve him. Castle was no longer breathing by the time he actually entered the hospital. Although the whole process appears to have been extremely disorganized, the hired expert concluded that nothing could have prevented Castle’s death.

Castle isn’t the first volunteer to have died during service with the Peace Corps. According to its website, since the organization’s founding in 1961, more than 200,000 people have served and 296 of those have lost their lives. Peace Corps deaths are rare, but they do happen.

Peace Corp director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has been pushing for reform since 2010, right around the time that a Morocco-based volunteer presumably died in 2009 due to “lapses in care.” The agency has been undergoing extreme changes in its healthcare system in an effort to reexamine itself. For example, this past week, the Peace Corps took cautionary action in temporarily removing 340 volunteers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone due to outbreaks of the ebola virus.

According to a mournful letter sent to past and present volunteers by Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps has been naming reform in healthcare, safety, and security its top priority for the past four years.

The New York Times recently published a collection of volunteer experiences, revealing that although the Peace Corps has shown clear carelessness in organization — uprooting volunteers from projects without adequate notice, taking an unreasonable amount of time locating health providers, etc. — it’s ultimately a very positive force that has made great strides in terms of international service.

I asked a friend of mine who’s done two stints with the Peace Corps, in Thailand and Saint Lucia, about her personal experience. She said that although Castle’s death is gravely unfortunate, there are risks associated with traveling abroad whether you’re serving with the Peace Corps or not.

“Yes, the Peace Corps could have been more vigilant. But in the same respect, the volunteer should have been more vocal,” she said. “Just because you’re a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t mean that you will be exempt from health issues for 27 months.”

Judging by the recent reports in The New York Times, the Peace Corps does have a lot of changes to make. However, ultimately your health is in your hands. No matter where you go and whom you represent, traveling demands heightened awareness.

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