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Medicine & Healthcare in Tanzania by Margaret Suanez

Making friends for life at volunteer social events

I’m a retired Police Officer with 22 years service and a degree in Emergency Management. However, in 2007 after moving from the city to live near the beach, I decided that medicine was really what I wanted to do. After attending an information night with Projects Abroad and speaking with their staff, I decided that a Medical Project in Tanzania was just what I was looking for. Although I’m 45 years old, life has just begun!

After 29 hours of travel, I arrived in Tanzania at 8.30pm reaching the host family in a total blackout, tired and hungry. We ate in darkness without being able to see anyone’s face and they asked if I would like to have a shower and use the bathroom. Oh yes please, I thought…the toilet was a hole in the ground (which let me tell you is difficult to use when you’re tired and attempting to hold a torch in one hand); the shower was a bucket and cup (which was not easy in the dark) and when finally I hit the pillow I found out it was made of cut-out foam. I thought, what am I doing here?! But it was the start of the most amazing adventure…

I had read other volunteer stories and was totally excited with the possibility that I would perhaps get a chance to observe maybe one surgery and hopefully a birth, but I knew it was only a possibility but the experience of working in a hospital would be unforgettable.

Imagine my surprise on day 1 at St. Elizabeth Hospital when I got to don scrubs in the first hour and watch an appendectomy and a circumcision. I found that you would only get as much out of this opportunity as you willing to put in. If you were polite, open to learning and willing to participate they were certainly willing to teach. The surgeon was firing questions away. I had made it very clear that I had NO medical experience, this was of no concern to him – he would go on to teach me so much about surgery that I had never dreamt possible. By 5pm that day I returned to watch my first birth (a boy)…and this was only day one!

I was so tired that I was asleep by 8pm most nights and up at 6am ready to start again. Working hours were from 8am to 4pm, but this was flexible depending how busy things were. Projects Abroad staff were fantastic and amazingly patient as they taught everyone how to get around without getting lost (that’s another funny story in itself), always there to answer questions and make you feel like part of a family. I cannot praise them enough.

Making friends with the Masai

By 10am on day 2 I had watched a caesarian section (a girl) and then as all the other volunteers left the theatre, I was asked if I wanted to scrub in and assist – did I ever! I got to assist with two circumcisions (my hand was shaking so much it wasn’t funny). Believe it or not I got much better by my 4th operation!

Every Saturday an orthopedic surgeon would be there and I got to watch him hammer and screw a pin into a woman’s leg. You had so many opportunities it was untrue. On Monday there was always an eye surgeon and I watched him perform the most amazing delicate surgeries.

In the following weeks I got to scrub in and assist in numerous surgeries – 3 caesarian deliveries (quite intense), another 2 appendectomies, as well as a gallbladder removal and twice I was asked if I wanted to close up…very tempting but I thought the woman had gone through enough trauma without waking up to my handy cross stitch. I even got to assist in another natural delivery (another boy) – wow, indescribable!

It was unfortunate watching some other western volunteers come through thinking it was their right to be given opportunities, thinking that they knew more than the Tanzanian doctors. They soon learnt that these doctors have got more experience than they may ever have as they are performing surgeries and looking after patients without any of the modern technology or equipment available in the west. The local doctors were always polite and willing to share their knowledge and teach. Of course this is dependent on how courteous and inquisitive you are.

Projects Abroad also organised a medical clinic in a Masai village which was an unforgettable experience. We set up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by only dust and one tree. 52 Masai people came from all around and we stayed until sunset. I made friends with the Chief and even taught him how to use a camera!

In between all this, the working week was broken up by the Thursday Night Socials – where you got to meet all the other volunteers and after just one beer actually think you could sing karaoke. Friends were made for life.

On safari with other volunteers

During the last 2 weeks I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro after a weekend hike to the waterfall (it seemed like a good idea at the time). I survived and enjoyed an unforgettable experience. The last week was spent relaxing on a 4 day safari through Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Crater floor – indescribable! That is another chapter in this amazing journey.

All in all it was the most amazing, life changing adventure I have ever been on – and one that’s confirmed exactly what I want to do: get my medical qualifications and travel the world volunteering…

I’m sure there will be other adventures in the coming years. In the meantime I’m happy to chat with anyone wanting further information.

Margaret Suanez

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