The Foreign Service Journal, April 2024

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | APRIL 2024 73 I looked into returning to the Foreign Service, although I suspected the State Department would balk. Diplomats must be available worldwide, and with my compromised immune system and the substandard health care in many nations, the bureaucracy was not likely to want to post me overseas. When it became obvious that there were too many bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, I knew my Foreign Service chapter was over. b One morning in 2020, a Florida resident, I woke up and could not swallow. A biopsy con rmed that I had stage 3 cancer of the tongue and lymph nodes. I endured a brutal surgery that removed more than half of my tongue along with 31 lymph nodes. Nerves from my arm were sewn together to reconstruct a new tongue. COVID-19 restrictions barred visitors from the hospital. Subsequently, I underwent 33 targeted radiation treatments, which left me with impaired speech and sense of taste, burning sores in my mouth, and the inability to swallow any food that required chewing. It was a hard time, and I begged my friends to visit. Not so much as a deathwatch but for support. I needed help getting nutrition into the feeding tube. My weight had gone from a plump 204 pounds to a skeletal 135. b What my friends did next still astonishes me. ey organized a schedule of caregiving that included people I love from almost every chapter of my life— high school, college, the Peace Corps, graduate school at Notre Dame, and the Foreign Service. Many of them didn’t know each other, but that didn’t stop them from creating a text group that could plan a blanketing schedule. One friend even built a device so nutrition could be more easily delivered to my feeding tube. ese friends are the reason I made it through radiation and am recovering. e hardest part now may be my relationship to nutrition. Eating is such a big part of our culture. Not being able to swallow food or taste anything is a major drawback. To keep socially involved, I signed up with a nonpro t agency to teach an English conversation class for refugees over Zoom. Most of my students are women from Syria and Afghanistan. Many are nursing newborns and do not turn on their cameras, which makes understanding their speech a challenge. My speech is slow and slurred, a lingering e ect of the reconstruction of my tongue. b Michael Varga (left) attends an end of Dubai tour send-o with Consul General David Litt, 1987. I never expected to still be around to appreciate nature in 2024. Despite the challenges, I feel blessed just to wake up and walk around my neighborhood, to marvel at a family of brown ducks traversing my street or the noisy, green parrots squawking above me in the trees. A butter y oats among the pink impatiens on my patio. Yes, I’m on a hard road. But I never expected to still be around to appreciate nature in 2024. ere’s no telling how or when my story will end. AIDS could have killed me but hasn’t so far—although, since the radiation treatments decimated my T-cells, I am technically an AIDS patient once more. Cancer, too, may kill me yet. It’s an open question. But when I’m feeling low, I close my eyes and see that FSO Michael crouching in the corner of the conference room in Halifax, and I hear Secretary Christopher’s voice again, “Get that man a chair.” I ease back and know that I can doze in peace. n COURTESY OF MICHAEL VARGA