I met up with 27 strangers (25 other students, 1 physical therapy professor, and 1 physician assistant) at the airport at 5am on May 12th. When I came home a month later on June 12th, I had 27 great friends and a new perspective on the world beyond the United States.
Our trip to South Africa was called a Dialogue of Civilizations in Health and International Medicine. Northeastern has faculty sponsor these programs to provide students with experiential learning, a type of study that extends beyond the traditional classroom setting. I was enrolled in two courses, one focused on South African culture and the other on the health and medicine, but these classes were unlike any I’d ever taken before. For the first class, I danced, ate, and conversed with South African locals. For the second class, I shadowed health care professionals and toured a plethora of health care facilities. Our trip began in Johannesburg then brought us to Cape Town, Durban, Swaziland, and finally up to Kruger National Park. I could speak for hours about the action-packed days, but I’ll just outline a few highlights.
In Kliptown (a township outside of Johannesburg), we walked through dirt streets lined with trash. The small shacks weren’t made of much and there was no running water or sewage system. Several portable toilets lined the roads, but they only made problems worse. We were graciously welcomed into several homes for a tour. A small shack no bigger than a triple or quad in Kravis housed about 21 people. We also visited a small boarding school (quite a bit different than Middlesex’s beautiful campus!) located within the township. When we entered the gates, kids swarmed around us, grabbing our hands and jumping into our arms. The boarding school housed several children orphaned in the community or with single parents unable to care for them. One room of bunk beds housed about sixteen girls and one room of bunk beds housed about sixteen boys. The kids put on an incredible musical performance for us with dancing. These kids did not have much, but they were happy.
The Medical School at the University of Capetown runs a program called the SHAWCO clinic. They bring a mobile clinic out into the informal settlements around the city. One evening we rode along with the program and were paired up with a medical student to shadow. People lined up for hours to receive a consultation from a medical student. I worked with a medical student to give a presentation on alcohol awareness to the waiting room as they were preparing to start the clinic. I then watched a few evaluations. The lack of resources was alarming. The night had to be cut short due to lack of electricity. I held my phone as a flashlight in the room, so that the medical student could perform a rapid HIV test for a patient. The one question that still remains unanswered for me: is this clinic actually beneficial to the people or is it just an opportunity for medical students to get patient contact and practice?
One day a little ways outside of Durban, we visited the Hillcrest Aids Centre. This program provided support for all aspects of people affected by AIDS. They had a gardening program, hospice care facility, and a Granny support system. Our group of Northeastern students played a soccer game against a group of Grannies–and they gave us a run for our money! Later that afternoon, we then proceeded to visit a traditional medicine healer known as a sangoma. All 27 of us took of our shoes and squeezed into a hut to hear a tour guide explain the importance of a sangoma. A sangoma communicates with the ancestors and helps provide herbal remedies to locals in need. There is great controversy and discussion over the actual benefits of traditional medicine. To finish that day off, we had a traditional Zulu meal on the floor of a hut where we ate vegetables with our hands.
This description only touches the surface of my adventures in South Africa. I have two more years left at Northeastern, and now after this positive international experience, I am looking into setting up my second co-op experience abroad in order to further explore international medicine. I have been accepted into an Early Assurance Program at Tufts Medical School. After the completion of my degree in biology at Northeastern, I will continue my education at Tufts Medical School. As an aspiring physician, this experience opened my eyes to the importance of global healthcare initiative. Primary care or preventive medicine is a crucial part of our healthcare system that does not exist in other parts of the world. One of the most important things I have learned is that healthcare providers are primarily educators. I will spend years in school learning, so that I have the knowledge and expertise to help patients. Medicine is incredible, but medicine has limitations. Prevention of a health issue is always better than treatment. Healthy living begins with an education and understanding of how our choices affect our bodies.
Thank you to all of the Middlesex Alumni Association for your support and helping to make this trip a reality.