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The University of Southampton
Health Sciences

My experience in Malawi by Katy Elliot

Ever since I was a child, I use to sit down with my family to watch the annual fundraising shows Children In Need and Red Nose Day and how they would raise money to help African children and families. That's when I realised I also wanted to help, even if it was to educate or just giving them the support they needed for a few weeks.

When I became a student nurse I always looked out for opportunities to help Africa even if it was just donating regularly. In our second year of training we had the opportunity to arrange a practice development experience which would allow us to gain more experience and knowledge in something we felt would benefit our training as a student nurse.

I looked at several ways to get myself out to Africa. I looked at organisations such as SKIP and Work the World but none of them gave me the experience I hoped to gain from working in a hospital. I wanted to find somewhere which allowed me to be part of the community and hospital so that I could learn from the way they work and to understand the true African culture and lifestyle.

Then I came across the AMECA charity. AMECA was giving six students an opportunity to apply for a bursary of £1,000 to help fund a student's chosen trip to Africa. After searching recommendations from the AMECA database I came across the David Gordon Memorial Hospital (DGMH), which is a 100+ bed mission hospital situated on a plateau 3000 feet above Lake Malawi. The hospital just screamed out history to explore and the fact the views off the plateau were breath-taking in their own rights.

When I arrived in Malawi I was instantly greeted by friendly happy people which I felt was continuous through my month there. Children as young as one year old were walking around the villages without parental supervision and playing in the dirt.

I had my aims and objectives on what I wanted to get out of this experience. I wanted to observe and help out as much as I could on various wards around DGMH but also to learn about the outreach medicine and travelling to local villages to attend clinics.

My first day at the hospital began with morning prayers which were an amazing opportunity to experience as it made you feel that you were in the heart of their culture, as Malawians were very religious. Then it was a stark introduction into the healthcare system within Malawi as well as orientation around the wards.

On first impressions of the wards, I could not believe that it was medicine in its most primitive state being used. Beds were rusty metal framed with what looked like a blanket used as a mattress. I.V stands were non-existent so they used nails in walls to hold them up.

Not every bed had a mosquito net above it so some patients would have to share beds at night as a way of keeping themselves protected. The drug trolleys consisted of little pots with a worn out hand written sticker on to identify a drug, or if no pots were available, paper screwed up in little balls were used to store medication.

The more I saw the more fascinated I became with how clinical medicine is taken for granted in the UK and fortunate we are to have the NHS system in place.

Over the four weeks I was there I will never forget all the interesting things I witnessed. I got to watch and assist in 11 births, two of the babies being named after me, which is an amazing experience and I was very honoured. I also got to witness four emergency caesarean sections in which I had to assist on the resuscitation of two new born twins.

This was an incredibly scary moment and felt like the longest 15 minutes of my life, but luckily we were able to revive both of them, and to this day both are doing amazingly well.

I also had the chance to experience the way in which they complete ward rounds, outpatient departments and visits to clinics away from the hospital, which gave me the experience to see true rural areas where patients were very sick and unable to receive treatment due to financial circumstances.

When working on the wards I gained knowledge in the way the nurses managed a patient's care, by assessing a patient, how they took basic observations, and how wound care was carried out with the most basic and minimal amounts of equipment.

I also would like to think that there were times they gained some knowledge from me and in the way we would do things in the UK. I understood that we obviously have more resources available to us, but the simpler things such implementing a regular turn around chart on a patient who lacks mobility can prevent pressure sores or the use of some wound dressing that they have.

When I wasn't working at the hospital I had the chance to do a little bit of exploring of Malawi and whilst doing this I got to see some amazing and breath-taking views of Lake Malawi. The Lake has a gorgeous reputation for its warm sand and clear fresh water. I never got used to the fact that it was a Lake due to the size of it.

I was also fortunate enough to have met some amazing and inspiring people who I will never forget, as without them my trip would have been incomplete.

Overall the large amount I was lucky enough to experience has made me develop more as a nurse and as an individual. I've learned that there is more to life than money and an abundance of choice at a supermarket.

Malawi has taught me the importance of health and how quickly this can be taken away from you. I know I would want to go back to African again as it feels that a part of me is still out there and I don't think it will ever come back. People say that you get the ‘bug' to go back out there. If this is the case, I have a big bug!

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