This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to live in Iganga, Uganda for 12 weeks and volunteer at the Iganga District Hospital. This hospital serves the entire district and surrounding area, despite having a severe lack of resources. Many times, if they run out of supplies, the health professionals will either improvise or have the attendants (usually the patient’s family) buy the items. For example, there was one time when they needed to catheterize a delivering mother to drain her bladder so that the baby could pass without injury. They had run out of catheters, so instead they had to tear IV tubing and use that, which is a LOT more painful than a normal catheter. But, they had no choice since the alternative would have been much worse. Observing these situations and decisions allowed me to investigate my global challenge of “Providing high quality healthcare with limited resources”. Most of the time I was surprised at how resourceful the midwives, nurses, and doctors were. There were sometimes though when even they were helpless to do anything, because there was absolutely nothing that could be done. There is no alternative to basic supplies such as oxygen, ultrasounds, and electricity. I witnessed several deaths that wouldn’t have occurred if there had been supplies.
Since I am still a pre-med student, and my highest level of training is Certified Nursing Assistant, I didn’t perform any procedures, or do anything that is outside the scope of practice of a pre-med student/CNA (despite the nurses’ insistence that it was okay in Uganda). So, my time was spent observing, and helping with tasks such as cleaning, retrieving supplies, wrapping up newborns, and other basic tasks that often get overlooked or put off due to a lack of staff. I also spent a lot of time connecting with patients. I learned that holding a hand communicates empathy, respect, and compassion more than an attempt to speak the local language. I gained leadership skills not by overseeing a large project or procedure, but by observing those who were in charge. I was able to observe how they lead, and what works in the Ugandan culture and what doesn’t.
Outside of the hospital, I spent a lot of time with my host family. I got to know them and learn about their culture and beliefs as well. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between our cultures. I was also able to learn about their views on public and global health issues.
Going into this experience, I knew that I was interested in global health, and specifically practicing as a doctor in a developing country. My time in Uganda cemented this desire. I had a lot of amazing experiences, but it was the difficult experiences that taught me the most. There were several heartbreaking moments that made me stop and consider why I wanted to go into a profession where these moments occur every day. Each time, I came to the conclusion that it is the moments in between the sad ones, and the connections with patients that makes the whole job worth it. For example, when you tell a mother who is mourning the death of one of her twins that they were able to save the other twin, and you see the hope go back in her eyes as she realizes she still has one child to take care of and love. The fact that I was able to connect with that mom and comfort her during her heartbreak, and offer her hope embodies why I want to become a doctor. I am so thankful for the amazing experiences that I had in Uganda!