April 2, 2020

Interview with Carina Muckel (CM), 28, Medical Intern (last year of Medical School) from orth Rhine Westphalia in Germany who is stranded in Auckland with 12,000 other Germans during the shelter-in-place put forth by the NZ Government. Her situation was brought to the attention of Rotary District 9920 through Rotaract in Germany and this is her story.

Interviewer: Monika B. Levinson (MBL), former member of the Rotary Club of Auckland, District 9920, and now member of the Rotary Club of Schongau (Bavaria, Germany), District 1841.

MBL: Could you give us a bit of background about your internship experience abroad and a bit of context in regard to where you are in your medical training.

CM: I started medical school in 2014 at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf, Germany. Last October, I passed my second exam and left shortly thereafter for the first third
of my intern year in Tanzania, Lake Victoria, in East Africa. I spent a little over four months in a hospital there, primarily in their pediatric division with broad exposure to all types of pediatric care.

In early March, I traveled to Wellington to conduct the second period of my training abroad. Sadly, I was engaged only about three weeks in the Rheumatology department of the Hutt Hospital, a small county hospital in the Lower Hutt region, which is in the southern part of the North Island.

The original plan was for me to stay in New Zealand until early May and then go back to Europe to work in Germany for two months and then finish the last four-months period of my intern year in Bern, Switzerland, in the surgical department of a hospital there. Unfortunately, these next stations are currently uncertain and it doesn’t appear likely at this point.

MBL: Thank you for giving us this background; I would also like to ask you, if you could give us a sense of what happened on Friday, March 20?

CM: That night, I received a call from my university as well as my sister in Germany, telling me that I needed to return immediately. My sister had learned from the ministry of foreign affairs that it was unclear whether I could return at my anticipated flight date in early May and hence recommended I get on the next possible flight. My university confirmed this concern and also emphasised that they would need me immediately at their hospital, since Düsseldorf had started accepting infected patients from the Alsace Region as well as from Italy.

Until that night, I had honestly not considered returning prematurely.

MBL: So, what happened during the next six days?

CM: After a short period of deliberation, I decided to book a return flight. Given that I am still in training and without an income, I had to be quite conscious about money, but was able to find an affordable flight through Emirates via Dubai for the following Thursday, March 26. On Saturday, March 21, one of my supervisors at the Hutt Hospital was encouraging me to still make the most of the time until Thursday and rent a car for my trip up to Auckland andenjoy as much as possible of the countryside along the way. I accepted his advise and enjoyed the Tongariro Crossing on Saturday, which was a beautiful experience.

On Sunday, I received the first message from Emirates, informing me that the segment from Dubai to Düsseldorf was cancelled. Further, on Monday, I learned that “Level 4” was declared and that the first leg from Auckland to Dubai was cancelled as well. So, I skipped my planned drive to New Plymouth and went straight to Auckland on the same day.

On Tuesday morning, I decided to go to the airport in Auckland and simply check with every single counter until I would find an option to leave the country. However, I found only closed doors.

MBL: So, what did you do next?

CM: Well, at that stage I did not even have a place to stay. All I had was the rental car. At first, I tried reaching the airlines by phone which yielded no results. Then, I drove to the German Consulate in Auckland because I couldn’t reach anyone there over the phone, but it was  closed as well. The next few hours, I found myself feeling rather lost, while hanging out at the Viaduct in Auckland. I called several hostels and kept receiving the same response - that they were not accepting any more guests for health reasons. In addition to my attempts, my sister tried the same from Germany and was finally able to get me a bed in the X-Base Hostel in the CBD.

MBL: Somehow during that time Rotary started to play an important role for you. How did that come about?

CM: While I was still in Tanzania, I met a young German woman during the climb up Kilimanjaro and with whom I stayed in contact. I phoned her from Auckland and she knew
someone in Germany’s House of Representatives who connected me with a Rotarian who is currently based in Canada. From there, the New Zealand Rotary connection somehow
evolved. I first heard from Becky Giblin, then from Craig Horrocks, Chris Sattler and also you. That’s how it all started.

MBL: Out of that Rotary NZ connection, something really wonderful emerged, that is, the accommodation you find yourself in right now as we speak.

CM: Oh yes. Although I had learned that through the kind efforts of Chris Sattler there was potentially an opportunity for me to get into a private home on Waiheke Island, I decided to stick with the hostel, since I was eager to stay put in Auckland in the hopes that whenever a new mercy flight was going to open up, I’d be ready to jump. So, until Tuesday, March 31, I was at the X Base where I received good news from Craig Horrocks. W. and L., a couple who are friends of Rotary and who are sheltering-in-place on Waiheke, were willing to let me stay at their city apartment in Mt. Eden.
They sent me their address and provided me with all necessary instructions on how to get in and navigate their place. Since Uber is still running in Auckland, I jumped in a car and came here. It was such a huge relief for me and I am aware that many people were involved in making this happen and I am so very grateful. Actually, I am almost speechless and just want to keep saying ‘thank you.’

MBL: Could you say a bit about why it was so important for you to get out of the hostel and what conditions you experienced, while staying there?

CM: There were approximately 300 people in the hostel and when I first arrived; intending to only stay for a couple of days, I was told I needed to book for a minimum of four weeks and that it was non-negotiable. Also, that I had to pay up front, but would get credited back the money for the nights I would not use. Honestly, I was not confident I would ever see that money again. They also imposed very strict rules on their guests, since they were obviously afraid that if one of them became infected with Covid-19, it would spread within the hostel in no time.

One of their rules was that we were only allowed outside for one hour per day and only once. That is, if you chose to come back after 30min, you lost the rest of your 1-h entitlement for that day. We had to sign out when leaving the building and sign back in when returning.

There was a very small patio, which was opened up for us, especially for the smokers, but it was limited to 10 people at any given time. If you wanted to use that porch as a non-smoker you already had difficulty “justifying” going there. Naturally, it was a very sought-after place to catch at least a bit of sun. There were cameras everywhere and they were used. In the kitchen area, only four people were allowed at one table, which was pretty much impossible. While it was a quite large area, given that most of the 300 people were in the building all the time, which would not normally be the case, we ran out of space in the shared areas constantly. Luckily, I had a single room, yet, the bathrooms and showers were shared. At the beginning, the wet areas were reasonable clean, but became dirtier and dirtier over time.

Same with the kitchen. People seemed to behave like there was no tomorrow, which meant nobody cleaned up after themselves nor bussed their tables or cleaned their dishes. I simply developed the habit of washing all the dishes before I used them because everything was so dirty. On my last night in the hostel, we even had the police there to do checks on us.
We heard that people had “monitored” us from afar, e.g., The ferries, to see whether there were more than the allocated 10 people on the patio on the 6th floor. In the case of violation, the police were called. Unfortunately, a lot of people did not stick with rules and in the evenings or at night there were frequently random gatherings held in some of the rooms. Sometimes, as many as 20-25 people in one room, drinking a lot. One time, I was on the patio at night because I had difficulty sleeping and someone showed up who was very drunk, and he simply hugged me and would not let go of me. Not that I think he was infected, but it is still dangerous. Even though I might not be concerned for my own health, I would not want to end up as a vector and impose a potential risk for my parents or anyone else. Besides, if one is infected, there is the clear rule of not being allowed to fly.

The time at the hostel was really challenging. While I learned in Tanzania not to complain and probably didn’t complain much during the week at X-Base, once I was out and arrived here, I realised just how much the experience had weighed on me.

MBL: Given that the majority of stranded people in New Zealand are back packers or students with very little, especially financial resources, what kind of mood did you pick up among them?

CM: The moods varied a lot, especially because of the ups and downs regarding the potential mercy flights. Hopes went up and then were crushed when people couldn’t get on planes. All in all, what was most important to me and what I would like to emphasise is that there was an enormous spirit of cohesion and mutual support among all age and social groups.

Everybody pulled together, shared food, ran laundries together (to share these costs as well) or when someone checked out of the hostel, he or she would pass on their left-over food to the remaining guests. There were also some people older than we who were kind enough to offer financial help here and there.

Particularly, the younger people were quite desperate at times. There was a palpable sense of homesickness. Like this morning, when I spoke over the phone with an 18-yr. old who is still at the hostel. At some point during our conversation, he even started crying. That was prior to hearing the news later today that there will be new mercy flights in the near future. Now, he is up-beat again.

I really think the worst was and is the uncertainty – not knowing how much longer we need to make do with the money we have.

MBL: You just mentioned that the flights will pick up again. What is your personal outlook over the next few days?

CM: I hope that over the next couple of days, if not tonight, I will receive an email from the German Consulate that I will be on one of the next flights. At the same time, I am, of course, aware that in Auckland alone approximately 6,000 people have applied for a seat on these mercy flights. I am assuming it will take a lot of time, at least 20 flights, and an enormous effort to execute. Especially, the administrative effort at the airport, given that operations there are shut down. So, separate personnel have to be mobilised for these flights and it will likely be a very improvised effort. My hope would be that I could get home by Easter.

MBL: What is the first thing you’d like to do when returning to Germany?

CM: For the first couple of days, I’d like to visit with my family that lives in the Eiffel region. Of course, I will keep enough physical distance to my parents, but at least being close will be lovely and I am sure I will be able to hug my siblings. There will be lots to talk about, given that I will have so many adventures and photos to share. Also, I want to go out into the woods, enjoy spring in Germany and, of course, I also hope to start working as quickly as possible. I am so ready and really eager to help in the hospital and hope that the hygiene division will allow me to get into the trenches quickly.

MBL: This sounds wonderful; in the name of Rotary New Zealand and Rotary Germany, I wish you the very best for this outlook, that your greatest hope will come into reality as soon as possible and that without much delay you can support your local hospital in Germany and the patients there.

CM: Thank you very, very much. You all did such wonderful work supporting me - I really appreciate it and I thank you all of you from the bottom of my heart.

MBL: You are most welcome - I will pass on your lovely expression of gratitude, take good care of yourself and stay healthy!