Rowan Cody was trained as a medic in San Antonio, but these days she’s a different breed of first responder. Instead of assisting victims of heart attacks and car accidents, the 32-year-old dashes to the front lines of humanitarian disasters on behalf of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Throughout her career, working for a number of aid groups, Cody has been dispatched to run a mobile health clinic in Congo, help build Ebola-care units in Liberia, and operate a transit center in Lesbos, which offered clean water, dry clothing, and medical care to thousands of refugees pouring onto the Greek island.
As part of the IRC’s emergency-response team, Cody and about 30 other aid workers from around the world operate on standby. When a crisis happens, members deploy for a few weeks or months before handing the reins of relief services over to long-term staff. Each situation demands a different response. “Sometimes we’re filling a gap, like when we set up a clinic where there isn’t one,” Cody explains. “Sometimes we support existing health facilities that are overwhelmed or need to be rebuilt. Sometimes it’s training. It’s always something new.”
The whirlwind deployments make for intense bonding among the emergency responders. “A lot of my colleagues have also become my friends through this work,” Cody says. “We spend our waking hours together, live in the same accommodations, and work in difficult conditions.”
Her vocation can be grueling—and also emotional. “I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she says, “but I do get frustrated that no matter what I did, it feels like it’s never enough.” During a brief stint in Serbia, where she was assisting refugees, Cody spoke to Foreign Policy about what she packs to face catastrophe.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of FP magazine.
ID badge — The picture is of me on holiday in Greece. I joined IRC when I was deployed with another organization in South Sudan. The Internet there was too weak to send an official photo so the team took a photo off of my Facebook page.
Converse sneakers — They’re my field shoes — they’re light and close-toed. Working in a cholera clinic in Haiti, I got sprayed with chlorine a lot. They got spotted and discolored, but they held up. After a pair gets worn out, I always buy a different color.
iPod — When I’m stressed or need to focus at work, I listen to jazz or blues. When I’m tired or having a bad day, I listen to something upbeat or with a fast tempo. I also like folk music. I usually listen to that when I’m feeling homesick.
Leatherman — Aid workers had set up tarps as shelters when refugees were waiting for transport from Lesbos. Once during a storm we were worried that the wind would pull them up, along with the heavy metal stakes. I used the Leatherman to cut the tarps down.
TRX — I’ve had the TRX, equipment used for suspension workouts, for about two years now. I use an exercise app called Freeletics and use the TRX to supplement or change up the routines. It’s a good way to make straight push-ups harder.
Yoga mat — I have a travel yoga mat that folds instead of rolls. A lot of the time, we’re stuck in a house or compound and can’t walk or easily get some form of physical activity. You can get to the burnout stage if you don’t take care of yourself.
First-aid kit — Sometimes the staff and I need first aid, too. The bag has your basic painkillers, antibiotics, alcohol wipes, and stuff for an upset stomach. I also have a military surplus one, and I fill it with bandages, quick-clot material, and a splint.
Petzl headlamp — We don’t have consistent electricity in most of the places we work, so we need this if, for example, we’re dealing with patients at night — or if there aren’t indoor toilets in the facilities and you need a light when you have to go outside.
Maui Jim sunglasses — I have sensitive eyes, so I need good sunglasses. In Congo, there was a puppy that lived on the compound. Someone accidentally shut her into the living area, and she chewed on my sunglasses and broke them.
T-shirts and jeans — I mostly work in these, but I also bring long-sleeve shirts. I have tattoos on one arm that are images and quotes from different literature — “The Raven,” Life of Pi — and I don’t like drawing more attention to myself than I already do.