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By Charlie Pearson

Reflections on completing an elective

3 min
Charlie Pearson profile

As many of you will be preparing for your chosen elective, we asked medical student, Charlie, to share his reflections on his time in Tanzania.

It was at the start of my time in medical school, almost five years ago, that I remember being told about the prospect of an elective. The time completing an elective was meant to be enjoyed and savoured after completing our studies.

The years slowly passed and two months ago, I found myself and my four housemates on our way to Moshi, Tanzania.

The experience of volunteering

The country has left a lasting impact on all of us. Friendliness, natural beauty and golden sunshine were abundant. While we were there, we were able to volunteer in Mawenzi regional hospital, overlooked by the peak of Kilimanjaro.

Our experience of volunteering was invaluable, offering a whole different spectrum of healthcare. From trauma cases, such as machete attacks and road traffic accidents, to malaria, an A&E with no defibrillator or resuscitation guidelines and very outdated psychiatric practices, we were exposed to completely novel challenges.

It was difficult to see a standard of care that wasn’t high enough, to us, but humbling to realise that there were often much fewer resources to work with for these staff.

When visiting a rural Maasai village, we saw firsthand how such remoteness can impact the delivery of care. For example, cost and accessibility were a common cause of difficulty, and would often result in delayed presentations to hospital that compromised recovery.

This experience was supplemented by a hike in the Usambara mountains, where we learnt more about natural approaches to medicine. Some examples include:

  • A mug of guava leaves in a pulp taken morning and evening to ease diarrhoea
  • The secretions of a chameleon to treat earache
  • Bark from trees (known in Swahili as ‘Mkulo’) turned into powder and inhaled for headache relief
  • Eucalyptus trees for chesty coughs

Interacting with different cultures

To interact with those from a different culture in the hospital environment was very valuable, providing the opportunity to develop cross-cultural communication skills and improve the capacity to understand the personal beliefs that motivate people.

On a personal level, Tanzania has become a destination I will return to, with the hopes of once again enjoying such a lovable, fun, positive, hospitable and laidback approach to life – something that made going back to the UK especially hard.

In terms of the future, the experience has also made me want to explore public health and how more sustainable and non-medicinal therapies could be used, especially for the mental wellbeing of our population.

Making the most of your elective

It wasn’t all medicine though. As in any country you may end up in on your elective, there is an endless amount of fun to be had. A particular highlight for us was the weekly football match against the Maasai, which quickly became very competitive.

The Kilimanjaro half marathon was an experience I won’t forget. We also had a near death experience on a boat in the Indian Ocean on the way to Zanzibar, and enjoyed some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Where to start when choosing your elective

For those who may be planning an elective, a good starting point is thinking about the type of healthcare system you would like to experience. It’s worth considering what you want to gain from your elective to help guide your choice.

I would encourage you to step out of your comfort zone for such a unique opportunity and pursue an experience that will really stick with you. It’s also wise to save as early as you can, as you will spend more than you anticipate!

Most importantly, use your elective to reflect on what you have achieved over the past five or six years at university. It’s a tough degree that offers little respite, and at times you can lose sight of the road ahead. However, it’s opportunities like this that repay it.

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