Carolyn Olsen Oral History
Olsen, Carolyn (Interviewee)
McSwegan, Melissa (Author)
Carolyn Olsen, wife of Operations Officer Dennis Olsen, discusses life in India and in Liberia, during the Smallpox Eradication Program.
Olsen, Carolyn (Interviewee), “Carolyn Olsen Oral History,” The Global Health Chronicles, accessed March 27, 2017, http://globalhealthchronicles.org/items/show/3531.
Interview Transcript INTERVIEW Audio File: Carolyn Olsen Audio File Transcribed: January 22, 2009 Interviewer: This is an interview with Carolyn Olsen on July 11th two thousand and eight at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia about her role in the smallpox eradication campaign. The interviewer is Melissa McSwegan. With this interview we are hoping to capture for future generations the memories of participants and their families involved in eradicating smallpox. This is an incredibly important and historic achievement and we want to hear about your experience. I have some questions to guide you but please feel free to recount any special stories or anecdotes that you remember about events or people. The legal agreement you signed says that you are donating you're donating your oral history to the U.S. Federal government and it will be in the public domain. For the record could you please state your full name and that you know you are being recorded. Interviewee: My name is Carolyn Hardy Olsen and I know I am being recorded. Interviewer: Okay, great. Thank you. Okay, so would you please briefly describe your childhood and you education and so on and what led you into work or participating in public health campaigns? Interviewee: I grew up in Wyoming and after doing all my schooling in Cheyenne Wyoming I went to the University of Wyoming where I graduated as civil engineer. And so I was working in Los Angeles when I met Dennis and shortly after we were married. We went to Africa and we enjoyed our three years in Liberia then we came back and again I worked as an engineer. And we were in Springfield Illinois when he went to (Bagapur) for three months and during that time I was working for the environmental protection agency and also getting my masters degree in environmental engineering. So, when he went to India I said I can't go right now I have to finish my masters degree. So, he sold the house out from under me and so I house sat that summer while I finished my degree but he knew I was coming to India cause I didn't have any place to live. And so I finished my masters degree and then I arrived in India and he met me in Delhi and it was pretty bad. And so after two days he put me on a train and we went off to Lucknow and he said, "I didn't decorate the apartment because I thought you could do it. And I sat there and all the wire was on the outside, the refrigerator was in the living room. It was really basic and I thought, "Oh my goodness." And so he said, "I've got to work now," and when he came back he said, "I've got to go the field tomorrow," and he wanted to go so we went off for a ten day field trip and when you go on a field trip you stay in very interesting places. Probably the best items that we took to India were our sleeping bags cause we were staying - they call them dock bungalows and they were usually about fifteen cents for a place to stay and breakfast and it wasn't worth it. Interviewer: Oh, right. Interviewee: They were really very basic and if we had water we would - if we had hot water we were very lucky but usually we had water. Then when we came back from that first trip Lucknow looked great then about a couple weeks later I used to have to fly or take the train into Delhi to get supplies. And like Dennis said it was like going to Europe. I mean Delhi looked first class after being in the field. Interviewer: Your perspective changed quite a bit during that time. Interviewee: Yes. Interviewer: How did you - you mentioned that you went on a - on field visits with your husband when he was working with the smallpox campaign. Did you play any particular role during these trips? Interviewee: Well, many of the villages were very rural and so I would usually walk along and because many times by having a woman with him the women were more comfortable but also I found that it's very interesting. Sometimes they have [inaudible 04.23] these different things in the village. I'll tell you one of the most interesting days though, in India women always have their legs covered and usually their arms. So I used to wear Levis and a kurta and I had very long blonde hair at that time and often wore it in a pigtail or pulled back. And on one occasion we came to this village way out in the middle of nowhere and I was reading a book that was really interesting so I said I'm not going into the village, I'll just stay here in the jeep. And so all the children come and they looked at me then they all ran away. And then all the ladies came and they got in a nice little line and usually people will go 'Namaste' but if you're very important it's 'Namaskar'. And the ladies were all giving me the 'Namaskar' and then they would chat away in Hindi. Well, the driver was just howling. I mean he was over by the - just holding his sides. The children had told the women that Indira Gandhi had come to the village so they were all telling me - and all the men were in the field because they were farmers and so probably in some village in India there is the [inaudible 05.41] of the day Indira Gandhi came to visit. But in general we would always go to the different health units and many times the Indian doctor was somebody who was either trained in Delhi or Bombay, now called Mumbai, and they were so glad to see somebody who spoke English. I mean they would get out their wedding pictures. These poor young ladies had arranged marriages and now they're in a village and they were used to living in a big city and so often times we had dinner with them. I mean it was a very - they were very hospitable and we just had a very interesting time in our field visits. Again we would go to many different health units during a day tracking down things and making sure their records were right. The sanitary facilities, again being an environmental engineer were not always that great and so you always had to watch your intake during the day. And so everybody wanted to give you tea and I didn't know at first how to say no and then I found out that, again it was Rujinder Singh our - Dennis' PMA who told me, "Tell them you're fasting." So I would say, "Oh thank you but I'm fasting today," and they would say, "Why?" And I say, "Oh I'm fasting for the health of my husband and the success of the smallpox program," and they would think I was just this wonderful person and then two health units further I would have a cup of tea again. But again you were in an environment that was very different than what most people especially during the hot months it was like a hundred and twenty degrees and you couldn't roll down the windows in the jeep because the wind coming through. And one day our driver took a shortcut so we got lost and we ended up stopping in a village where they went in, took the straw out and got us a piece of ice out of the ground which we put in a bucket and bought about twenty four Coca Cola. And we would get towels wet, put them on our head and it was just a interesting day, I mean very trying on us. Interviewer: And did you have the opportunity to apply your engineering and engineering training while you were living there? Interviewee: Not really. Again sometime there would be water questions and - but it really didn't lend itself to get involved. I was able to do that more when I was in Liberia. I taught sanitation workers how to do mapping and different things but again we were - actually we were moving quite a bit when we were in India. Interviewer: Describe a bit your relationship with the host country counterparts or the people you were interacting with on a day to day basis. How did that work? Interviewee: Being a woman in India is different. Our living arrangement was quite nice in that we lived upstairs in what they called (vasadi) of the Dases. And Mrs. Das was actually the president of the girls school next door, Isabel Thornbird College which is a prestigious college for Lucknow. And Mr. Das had been the police chief for the whole state and so we were included in that part. So there I felt very comfortable being a woman but when we were in the field it was - or when you were alone you always felt like, especially young boys between like fifteen and twenty three, they were very aggressive and so you would always like to make sure that you were - and as a result the PMA and the driver and everybody were always very protective of me. And being a professional person I was not used to having to have to kind of being protected. And then later on when we moved to Delhi it was a matter of having the taxi driver watch you while you went into the market. And it wasn't that you felt security, I mean it was just that they wanted to touch your hair or something. One time - oh, I had - I was having a strange pain and my fingers were starting to go numb and so I went to a doctor in Delhi and they said that I have Hobo's Disease. It was my arm from riding in the jeep I would have my arm up and it was pinching a nerve. And he says, "I think we should X-ray you." So I went in and the doctor came in and he started laughing because the paramedic had put my hair, my blonde hair so it was like a halo while I was laying there. But in general you just go with the flow of things. It was quite interesting. Interviewer: What were some of the biggest challenges to living in India? Interviewee: Food actually was kind of a challenge. We were - when we were in the field we were usually vegetarians because you didn't know the last time somebody who may have come through and eaten meat so you didn't know how old the meat that was in the restaurant. And we ate at the truck stops along the way and so we would always have to ask them to put the samosas back in or put new samosas into the hot oil so everything we ate was hot. The embassy doctor used to just be amazed because we would not get ill but we didn't eat fresh vegetables unless we were home and they were peeled even if we went to a very nice hotel or a nice buffet and we had a lot of soup and a lot of things but also we had a cook. He had a reputation. He had worked for Dr. Francis and Dr. McGinnis and everybody knew that Iddu was just a wonderful cook and so Iddu was an old man, I mean now he is probably forty but he seemed like an old man to us at that time. And he became ill and they gave him streptomycin which caused inner ear damage and so he was having a hard time walking and so then I would pay for a rickshaw to bring him right up to the door and then I had him bring his daughter who had had smallpox so it was really quite appropriate. She was blind in one eye and had pox - to help him so that he could his work. And one day - she would marketing, he would do the cooking most of the time. One day I am cooking, he is sitting there with his feet up, she is outside drinking tea and I'm thinking, "And I have servants," you know. But during that same period of time Iddu got more sick and so about every six weeks or so we would have this regional meeting and all of the epidemiologists would come in and the international epidemiologists would come for lunch and then the Indian and the international ones would all come for dinner which would be about a hundred people. So, we would have usually about twelve to fifteen for lunch and I had Sabra who would help but Iddu was gone so it was up to me. So I thought, "Well what," - so for lunch we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid for the international group and then for the other people I did manage to find some things that were almost ready made, you add two vegetables and you became, you know. And I thought okay this is adequate. Well, the next month as we're going around to the different epidemiologists to see how things were going and everything, all the international ones says, "Boy I hope you have the same lunch next time we're here. That was the best thing. I go to bed at night dreaming of that peanut butter and jelly sandwich." And then the Indian doctors, and Indian doctors actually had a harder time finding food because their wives had taken care of their food in their houses and rarely did they eat out. And in India you have to sort your rice and you know all those different things. Well, a couple of them asked for my recipe for the different curries I had made that night and I didn't have the heart to tell them that I had gone to the store and bought a box of something that I put in it. So I kept on like don't, [inaudible 15.21] the recipe you know, but I had an enjoyable time. It was a challenge and you never quite knew what the day was going to bring. Interviewer: Were you able at some point to decorate your apartment? You had mentioned your apartment had all the wires on the outside and did it eventually become more... Interviewee: Well, it actually started looking pretty good. Interviewer: Okay. Interviewee: I mean, we had fluorescent lights and definitely - but during - well, electricity was not always available and so sometimes you would have company or somebody and all of a sudden all the power would go out. And before the game Trivia Pursuit, we used to play a game that you would give the person the almanac and the flashlight and they would ask the other people questions. So that was our entertainment on that but when we were in the field sometimes if you didn't have power we would go to the movie because the Hindi movies are four hours long, they usually have fans or if they are upscale they have air conditioning and they have their own generators. So we used to go to a lot of Hindi movies when we were traveling and it was - like I said the heat was a challenge when you have a hundred and twenty degrees. Then the cold was a challenge because you had fifteen foot ceilings and no heat and so if you invited people over for dinner you would put the heater under the table and everybody would sit there in their coats and you would usually have soup or something hot. But other than that I mean it was probably the most grueling experience I have. I mean if you look at going to school, going to college, going to India is just straight up. I mean it's like they say you see the poorest, you see the richest. You are the hottest, you are the coldest. Everything is a dichotomy and the people there were just absolutely very hospitable and very, very nice. They were you know again I would say kind of shy but some of the doctors that we met especially the Indian doctors that were in charge of different areas were very, very nice. And this apartment that we had since they would come to visit us, they would see what we lived in so then they felt like they could invite us to their home so whenever we went to Delhi we would be invited to some of the doctors' houses. And probably one of the best invitations we ever had was Dr. Hakoli. While we were there they had the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad which happens I think every fifteen years and it's on the river banks of the River Ganges. And on a busy day there's about probably ten to fifteen million people come and we were invited to come and stay in one of the tents for a minor bathing day so there was only about five million people there. And so the Jumna, the Sangam and the Ganges all meet there and everybody goes to bathe and they have - they pray to the Sadhus. And the first night we arrived there was this chanting so I asked Mrs. Hakoli, I said, "Do they pray all night?" cause it sounds like the Hare Krishna chant. And she said, "Pray?" And I said yes and she said, "Oh! No they're listing hundreds of women who were lost today." And it was a tradition that when you went back to your village you stopped at lost and found to see if anybody from your village had come and gotten lost to take them back. And you would see these ladies with their saris tied together and some young son taking all their aunties to this festival. So it was very, very interesting. Interviewer: What were some of the biggest differences between India in Liberia in comparing your two experiences? Interviewee: Well, I worked in Liberia so I was working as a school teacher there and teaching math and in India I felt like my role was more to support my husband and then there were a lot of social functions like when the international group came again we hosted at our house. When we lived in Delhi and probably - well the type of people we met in India were very different even from the international side cause the Soviet Union was also - had provided quite a few epidemiologists and doctors for the program. And so we not only had Russians but we also had people from Chezkslovakia and a lot of Eastern European countries. And it was an education in social morays and also in how different countries looked at the Soviet Union and how when they socialized and when we socialized it was very different. Cause like if we were to go to a party it was put on by Dr. Codokevich or something as opposed to when we had a party we would look around and find out who else had a servant who would be the bartender and somebody else. So we had all Indian staff working the party. When we went to a Soviet party it was people from the embassy. I mean there were all kinds of ladies and other people that were Russian that were - you weren't uncomfortable but you knew it was very, very different. Interviewer: How did your time abroad particularly in India and Liberia with the smallpox program, how did that affect your career and your life afterwards? Interviewee: Well, on a I guess - India is such - I mean it's just there's so much energy and so much to do and so much to see that I just suddenly felt like I either had to write a book or do something and instead I started painting and in about six months I painted sixty some pictures all Indian. And in India you can do anything so I had a one woman show and sold my paintings and it was really, it was quite interesting. And one of the highlights was that Dr. Sensor actually purchased the first painting I ever painted which was of a train station and gave it to Dr. Fergie. And so my claim to fame was that one of my paintings was in the Carter Center for a while but on a professional side it really brought home the need for clean water. And my profession as it moved forward I was commissioner of water and pollution control for the city of Atlanta and I was very involved in a lot of water and waste water activities. I also then became the president of a non profit which is called Water for People and it gives you a real empathy for how important clean water and drinking water is because when we were in the field in order to have clean water we used to carry - the old milk buckets there are kind of made of aluminum and about this tall. And each night we would fill our jug up with water, put the immersion heater in, boil our water and put it in a - so we never had cold water but we had clean water. And with all the disease and the different things you just realize that water is probably one of the most important parts of our existence. Interviewer: Well, do you have any other stories or anecdotes that you would like to share with us? Any memorable moments from your time there? Interviewee: Oh, I must say that one of the - when we moved to Delhi I didn't get to go in the field anymore so I became a professional traveler and as a result anybody going anywhere I would go. And I was able to go up to an area close to the Nepali border which was called Tiger Haven where they would bring tiger - small tigers back from London and get them back into the wild. And they would put you up in a cage and let you watch the animals which was very interesting. Another time I went with some missionaries and we took a train ride on a no class train and it was a twenty four hour ride down to New Bombay and I was with some Swedish people and it was very, very interesting cause we used to travel by train but we used to travel at least first class something which wasn't that great. But this was - I think it cost me ten dollars to take a twenty four hour trip one return. And on one train we were in a car and the rest was freight and all of a sudden there was a band and it came through playing and it then got off the train. We come to find out they were on top and that's where - also that's where they would make tea and they would lean down over and sell you tea into the compartment but they riding up on top. And the last trip that I took that was very interesting was some people from the embassy were going to go from Delhi to Kabul, Afghanistan. So we went through Pakistan and through the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. And that was all in the seventies so that was before the Russians came and I just feel very sad when I see what has happened to Afghanistan. I don't know if you've read it or not but Kite Runner when it described at the beginning is the kind of Afghanistan that I had seen and I also had empathy for Afghanistan cause when I went to University of Wyoming, University of Afghanistan, University of Wyoming were sister colleges so I had met Afghans then also. But other than being a world traveler I think that was pretty much a very positive experience and again I'm sure it changed my life. I mean it just gave me a whole different way of looking at the world and from a South East Asian standpoint but also with all the different cultures that we met through the program. Interviewer: Well, thank you for sharing your story. Interviewee: Okay.