Every U.S. Embassy has a duty officer on call right now. Any U.S. citizen facing a medical or legal emergency just about anywhere in the world can get immediate help from a U.S. diplomat 24/7. Employees at the embassy rotate duty officer responsibility, and I remember one particular instance when I was serving in the role in 2011 and the duty phone rang during dinner. I answered it with some trepidation, as we always do, hoping it would not be a terrible emergency.
At the U.S. Embassy in Harare, as at every U.S. embassy worldwide, looking out for the welfare of U.S. citizens is our top priority. Our consular officers are extensively trained in American citizen services, ranging from replacing lost passports to assisting with medical evacuations. They cannot overturn an arrest, but they are the first ones called and go immediately to check on incarcerated individuals to ensure U.S. citizens are treated fairly by local law enforcement.
My call turned out to be about an elderly U.S. citizen who broke her hip at Victoria Falls. Traveling alone as part of a tour group, she was 8,000 miles from home. I could not personally get to her quickly, but I was able to activate our consular American citizen services support network.
Our consular section maintains emergency contingency plans for a wide range of scenarios. They continually update online consular information, meet with local U.S. citizen residents, and encourage U.S. visitors to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before travel. They also have an extensive network of volunteer “wardens” throughout Zimbabwe who assist U.S. citizens in distress until a consular officer can arrive.
Thanks to this network, the woman with the broken hip was already at the MARS (Medical Air Rescue Service) clinic waiting for a helicopter to take her to Johannesburg. Meanwhile, I spoke to the woman’s daughter in the United States about insurance and alerted the U.S. Consulate General in Johannesburg. After several hectic hours, she left Zimbabwe and went home to her daughter.
I am not a consular officer myself, but I am able to take on the duty officer role thanks to my consular coworkers and their extensive network of hardworking, reliable Zimbabwean contacts. Together, we help U.S. citizens in distress and do our best to make a trip to Victoria Falls the once-in-a-lifetime perfect experience it should be.
About the Author: Sharon Hudson-Dean serves as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.