I had been looking for an organisation to volunteer with but some of the bigger ones were asking for huge fees; for people to give up at least 3 months or more of their time; and often to be part of large medical teams where they were looking for particular expertise or some intensive training as part of the package.
I simply wanted to put the knowledge and training I already had into practice, in an English speaking country, for whatever time I had to give. TWOWEEKS offered me exactly that – a place to stay in South Africa and a clinic in Durban to put my skills into valuable practice.
TWOWEEKS provided accommodation at an orphanage in Ikethelo and I was to be one of the first volunteers to work at The Denis Hurley Centre with Dr Carpenter. As you can imagine I was both nervous and excited.
I worked one day a week at the clinic with another 2 or 3 doctors and a team of nurses who ran the place. Patients could only be seen on a first come, first served basis, once they had 100 people on the list it was full. Although I did see some extremes of disease, most people came in with much the same ailments as those in the UK – coughs, colds, stomach pain and breathing problems. At least a third of the population were refugees and many of the patients were homeless – and as it is in the UK often the issue they were bringing to the clinic was secondary to their actual needs – addiction, poverty, poor mental health etc. The medication they needed was not always available but we did our best to provide what we could. The gap between rich and poor was vast and I often had to remind myself that there was nothing I could do about their social situation but I could make a difference in terms of the quality of care they received once in the clinic.
This was highlighted to me on the night I arrived although it was to become a common theme throughout my time there. My plane landed at around 5pm. I had a delightful journey with a worker and some of the children from the orphanage in Ikethelo. It was pitch black by the time we got there and as I entered the house I was greeted by a lone pot on the stove. I cautiously called out to see if anyone was around and was soon greeted by 2 other volunteers – non medics from various other organisations – who were sharing the accommodation with me. They had been cooking me a welcome meal but got news that I needed to go to the hospital to meet Nick (who ran the orphanage) who was there with one of the children. A 13yr old girl had been taken in with pains in her abdomen. Nick had already been there for several hours and when I arrived explained the situation to me. It became clear that the pains she was suffering with weren’t normal for a girl her age, Nick had suspected the cause but with a qualified (though jet lagged!) doctor beside him a stronger case could be made. She was eventually admitted and referred to see a urologist. The entire process took 28 hours and many trips back and forth. It transpired she had TB previously and had issues with her kidneys, the prognosis was bladder stones – large ones and it took two weeks for her treatment and recovery.
Nick was really grateful I was there and the many hours spent both traveling to and in the hospital allowed us to get to know one another very quickly! Even though it had been a complete shock to my system – jet lagged as I was and bewildered in a new country – it was the thing that helped me settle in. I got to know the hospitals in the surrounding area which helped when referring patients from the Denis Hurley clinic and some of the other local community ones I worked in. It also gave me a massive confidence boost, I had been worried about how much of a help I could actually be, but this experience showed me how useful my skills actually were. I thought “I’m a doctor, I can do this!”
There are many more stories like this one that humbled and encouraged me. The whole experience out there was inspiring and I took a lot from it both personally and professionally. My work there was engaging and free time being beaten by the children at football was also fun!
I had wanted to go somewhere where I could offer myself and add value. I wanted to be challenged and feel like I was making a difference. I wanted to make new friends and build relationships that would last long after leaving. I got all that and more.
If you are thinking of volunteering with TWOWEEKS I would encourage you to give it a go. Don’t get me wrong it was hard work but worth every minute.