Lara Fossen - Medicine in Sri Lanka
When I was in grade 12, one of my closest friends, who wanted to become a doctor like myself, sent me the Projects Abroad website link and said that she was interested in going on a Medicine Project. It has always been a lifelong goal for me to volunteer so this website instantly grabbed my attention; this would be the perfect opportunity to start my journey. Unfortunately, I was unable to do a Projects Abroad trip that summer as my family was making a huge move from Canada to the Netherlands, and I moved to England to study medicine at university. Luckily, the first next summer holidays were quite long, and after completing my first year of medical school, I was finally able to go to Sri Lanka for a month with Projects Abroad.
My first days in Sri Lanka
The Projects Abroad team was more than helpful with preparing me for this trip; every time I emailed my coordinator, she replied back instantly with tons of kindness and enthusiasm. Then came the day that I would travel to Colombo and leave the comfort of my home and my family in the Netherlands. I was extremely excited to meet my host family and my new housemates. I arrived on a Saturday, so all the other volunteers were out exploring different places in Sri Lanka.
My roommate was kind enough to leave a note behind on my bed with contact details so I could contact her right away. Even though she was not physically there with me in the house, she still gave me the warmest welcome. My host family made me feel more than welcome as well. When I arrived, there was a gathering to celebrate the life of a family member who recently passed away. Many people were there including seven monks who were offered food from the host family and did prayers with all the family and friends. My host family even let me offer gifts and food to the monks, which was an incredible experience. The next morning I woke up extremely early because of jetlag, so I decided to walk to the beach and have a look around my new hometown. Around noon, my new housemates arrived back from their trip so I had the chance to get to know them, and ask them many questions about their experience so far. They were so helpful and gave me many tips and tricks on how to get around in Sri Lanka.
Monday was my induction where I met my supervisor. He showed me how to get to work and introduced me to the director of the hospital where I would be volunteering for the next month. My supervisor was incredibly kind and gave me so much information regarding my placement. I then had to pick two departments to volunteer in. Some of the departments included paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, accident service, general medicine and surgery. It was incredibly hard to choose, but I chose to start with two weeks of accident service and then finish off with two weeks of obstetrics and gynaecology. I am extremely happy that I picked these two departments. My induction day ended with a lovely lunch together with my supervisor, and visiting the Projects Abroad office. I then took a tuk-tuk home, which was an experience in itself.
Accident service department
For the first two weeks, I volunteered in the accident services department. The first day was a lot of looking around, meeting some of the doctors, and getting used to the schedule. The day always started with a ward shift where the doctors would go over the admitted patient’s notes to see if any treatments needed to be updated. Then, patients came in and were taken care of based on a triage; the patients who needed help the most were helped first. Within the department, there is a main operation theatre used for orthopaedic surgeries. There is also a room that is used for minor surgeries like stitching, or is used for patients that are really unwell and need a lie down.
On my second day, I met a Sri Lankan high school girl who wanted to pursue medicine in the UK. Because of this, we instantly connected. She was doing Cambridge schooling, which meant that she spoke excellent English, as well as excellent Sinhalese. Most patients only spoke Sinhalese so there was a language barrier between the patients and myself. Together, we attended all the ward shifts, and saw lots of surgeries and patients together. Meeting her made my Sri Lankan experience even better, and I know that we will be friends for life. I cannot wait to see her again in the future hopefully as a medical student in the UK. My highlight was when we were allowed to wear scrubs to watch orthopaedic surgeries in the main operation theatre.
There are lots of mosquitos in Sri Lanka; I’ve learned that the hard way. During the second week of my project, I started to get a headache, and a massive temperature as well as a couple of other mild symptoms. I went to the hospital to ensure that everything was all right, but unfortunately, they detected a dengue antigen in my blood and I was admitted to the hospital for observation. My housemates and host family were incredibly helpful during these five days I was in the hospital. I had visitors come every day, whether it was my host mom and dad, my housemates, the Projects Abroad team, or my new friend from the hospital. Everyone came and brought me food and drinks (hello pizza, goodbye hospital food!). I am so very thankful for these lovely gestures.
Obstetrics and gynaecology
For the last two weeks I was fortunate enough to volunteer within the obstetrics and gynaecology department. The highlight of the entire hospital experience happened during the first day at this department; I was allowed to scrub in and assist with a caesarean section. Even though my role was minor, I was still allowed to participate! What made this experience even more meaningful to me was that I assisted with the birth of a baby boy on my little brother’s birthday. I will never forget this tremendous day.
For the remainder of the two weeks I spent my time with doctors, nurses, midwives, and recently graduated medical students. I really enjoyed my time with the graduates as they often worked together in groups to solve case studies. There would be many discussions regarding a patient’s history and possible diagnoses. Even with my limited first year medical student knowledge, I was still able to understand and contribute to the discussion. If there was a procedure I was unsure about, they would explain the procedure to me and answer any questions I had.
Weekend trips in Sri Lanka
We work during the weekdays and get the weekends off to travel the country. One weekend, my housemates and I went to Galle. Unfortunately, it was raining on Saturday, so we did not spend any time at the beach, but we did look around Galle fort and did some shopping there. We also got a relaxing massage at the end of the day. Sunday was sunny so we went to the beach, and spent lots of time in the warm Sri Lankan ocean. I spent my last weekend in Mirissa. My housemates and I booked a hotel right by Mirissa beach, and fortunately, we had phenomenal weather. During the day, we would relax on the beach, and at night be would be spend time with the other tourists in a beach tent. I would absolutely recommend Mirissa and Galle to anyone visiting Sri Lanka, as they were both beautiful, fun and unique places.
My experience with Projects Abroad has been tremendous. I fell in love with the country, the beautiful and kind people, and with obstetrics and gynaecology. I met the most incredible people who I really hope to see again in the future. I would recommend this project and location to everyone, especially prospective medical students. I am looking forward to my next adventure with Projects Abroad!