Having been selected onto the Operation of Hope’s surgical mission to Zimbabwe – and on finishing my 3rd year university exams, I went out to Harare to join the team. I originally chose to go to Zim with my go abroad fund for several reasons: Firstly, I saw this as an opportunity to experience medicine in a completely different healthcare system, one that I hope to practice in during my career. I have always been intrigued by medicine in Africa – and looked forward to comparing and contrasting my experience in Zimbabwe to my training in Edinburgh. The fund also gave me the chance to travel to a stunning part of the world, to enjoy the beauty of the country and its people. Perhaps above all it was a privilege to be in a position to help people who so desperately need it.
Before leaving, my main concern was instinctively safety as I would be participating in a medical setting in a third world country: Zimbabwe despite once being the ‘bread basket of Africa’, has had to confront a number of severe crises in the last few decades, including an unprecedented rise in inflation in 2008, a severe cholera epidemic, high rates of unemployment, political violence, and a near-total collapse of the public health system. HIV rates are amongst the highest in the world, at a prevalence of over 15% and the average life expectancy is just under 53 years of age. Before going, I spoke to various family friends who had worked as medical professionals out in African countries, which I found very useful and reassuring.
Reflecting on my experience, I am amazed at what a huge difference this multidisciplinary team of surgeons/anaesthetists/nurses/medical students/volunteers made in a relatively short amount of time. The first day was screening: with over 300 people who had traveled from all over the country being seen. From this 70 patients who were suitable for cleft lip/palate surgery were operated on in the following days. To be part of this provision of free, life changing surgery and health care for children in such desperate need of it, as well as creating a self-sustaining program of hope through education, was a privilege. I will always remember the smiles on the children’s faces – when they first see themselves in recovery with transformed smiles, previously having been so stigmatized in society– and now their hope of a normal life a big step closer to being realised.