An Elective to Zimbabwe and (unexpectedly) to Uganda

We couldn’t have had a more unexpected elective.

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Myself and Susie Bryson, who I went with, felt that we had been fully prepared before travelling there. We had many meetings with Brad from Operation Orphan, we met local Zimbabweans in England who would be in Zimbabwe at the same time as us, and even started to learn the language. We felt confident that we would have an experience that would give us a taste of what we both want to do later on in our medical careers. On reflection it has done exactly that, but in a way that neither of us could have imagined.

Having both spent a lot of time in Africa (I grew up in Uganda and Kenya, moving back to the UK for A-levels and University), I think that we both felt that we knew it very well. We thought that there would be no culture shock and that it would serve as a learning curve in medicine, but that it wouldn’t be a lesson in the African lifestyle – ‘we knew that already’. Operation Orphan could not have planned it better for us – it was such a personal, practical and well-thought-through process. Being Christians, we knew we had friends, family and church praying for us, but also that those sending us out were looking out for our safety and caring for us practically as well.

The first week in Zimbabwe was absolutely amazing, and went so smoothly – I enjoyed every single moment of time on wards, in clinics, in the community outreach, and also in our own time away from clinical settings. However, in the second week of work at Mutare we experienced a side of Africa (or, more especially, Zimbabwe) that neither of us had expected or experienced first-hand ourselves before. Through no fault of our own, completely unexpectedly, Susie and I encountered a week’s worth of ‘troubleâ’ in Zimbabwe that caused our time there to be cut short.

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I cannot stress how incredible the support and planning of Operation Orphan was in terms of swiftly giving us advice, taking us out of an unforeseen, unavoidable and dangerous situation and organising a completely new adventure and elective in Uganda! We felt completely safe despite what went on, and we were provided with a safe route out of one place into a beautiful new one! Their concern about delivering a duty of care to us was second to none.

We flew to Uganda on the 29th March and begun a second elective, working at Kisiizi Hospital in Kabale for the remainder of the time. This was all been formalised by Operation Orphan with paperwork and contacts.

In terms of all of the medical experience we had, we were extremely privileged to see two very different hospital set ups, and two different countries. I learnt a great deal not just about tropical medicine and the common conditions there but also of the running of third world, resource-poor hospitals. We learnt what was involved in the day to day, the expectations on staff, the joys and the frustrations. I really enjoyed meeting patients and being a part of their treatment and following the pathway of care. A hugely educational experience. We had many different experiences in all settings – hospital, clinics, surgery – in lots of different specialties – paediatrics, medicine, psychiatry, obstetrics and gynaecology to name a few – and in life itself.

Kisiizi Hospital was one of the most amazing places I have EVER been to. This is coming from a girl who has lived in Uganda for a long time, and been blessed enough to have travelled to many different places for medical and non-medical purposes. Kisiizi is like a Garden of Eden – stunning to look at, and stunning in their attitude to patient care. There is a richness to living and working there that is rare to find on an elective, to become so involved and immersed in culture and community, and feel so welcomed.

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So to conclude: has this elective changed my opinion of working abroad in Africa as a future career? Absolutely not. Despite all the trouble we encountered, it was been one of the most incredible, valuable and enjoyable experiences of my life. In fact, it has made me want to work in Africa all the more – although I doubt if Zimbabwe will let me back in again! I think it actually removed the rose-tinted glasses that I wore of my idyllic childhood in Africa and growing up there under the protection of adults. Instead of this I was woken up to the joys and yet major frustrations of work there – and now I want to do it more so than ever before!

Suzi Shelley

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