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Reuben Shin - Medicine in Ghana

At Assin Praso waterfall

I am a pre-med student who graduated from University in May 2007. I know the rest of the world has a different system, but in the U.S we have to go to University first before we go to medical school. After graduating, I decided to take a year off before going to medical school. I wanted to do something that would really solidify my motives for entering the field of medicine. My desire to become a doctor originated from a film about missionary doctors in Africa and so, naturally, I decided to take that and make it a reality.

At Mole National Park

I picked Ghana because of the language compatibility and also because of testimonials I read on the Projects Abroad website. I originally wanted to go for a year, but realistically I needed to come back home for medical school interviews. So that’s how it all began. Now here’s my experience:

I left for Ghana at the end of May, one week after graduation. Once I got there, the humidity and heat hit me in the face, but besides that, nothing really came as a surprise; you go to a country in Africa kind of expecting what you’re going to get. I expected the worst, so the cultural shock wasn’t too bad.

Goodbye performance

My placement was at Central Regional Hospital in Cape Coast and my first day was awesome. I got the tour around the hospital like everyone does. The fun part of my day happened when we got to the surgical theatre during my tour. The nurse who was showing me around was introducing me to the doctors and nurses in the various departments, but when we got to the surgical theatre, they told me I had to wear scrubs in order to get in. I just happened to have my scrubs with me, so I got changed. When I got inside, I got sucked in with some medical school students and got to watch an appendectomy! The surgeon was a Bulgarian doctor who has been in Ghana for more than 4 years. He explained everything about the procedure and let me come in close to see the perforation of the appendix.

I guess that was a great start to my placement. For the first couple of weeks, I spent my time in the Radiology department with Dr. Saied and Dr. Rockson, who were both extremely willing to teach me. I got to do some x-rays myself, learned to look at ultra-sound images (I can actually point out the different organs and parts of a baby), and watched HSG procedures.

Medical outreach programme

After my time in Radiology, I spent the next month rotating through the Surgical Wards, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Paediatrics, Physiotherapy, and Accidents & Emergency departments. Having an initial interest in surgery, I settled in the surgical ward for the remainder of my time.

Every morning I followed the surgical doctors on ward rounds to the Male Surgical, Female Surgical, and Paediatric wards, examining patients and monitoring their progress. Afterwards, the doctors split into different areas according to their assigned positions, so I either followed them to Accidents & Emergency, Surgical Theatre, Consultation Clinic, or ward duty.

Of those, Surgical Theatre and ward duty were probably the best for me. In theatre I got to see many interesting surgeries while standing almost directly next to the surgeons who explained everything as they went along. I saw hernia repairs, appendectomies, thyroidectomies, amputations, C-sections, uterine fibroid removal, laperotomies, and a bunch more.

Trip with children to pool

A doctor on ward duty basically had to stay in the surgical wards and do anything that was needed from putting in catheters and NG tubes to washing burn victims. This is when I got my most hands-on experience because less people were around. I got to do many awesome things, as odd as some of it may sound. I helped bath burn victims, dressed wounds, gave a rectal exam, put in IV lines, drew blood for analysis, and assisted in a minor surgical procedure. The doctor that was supposed to assist could not be reached so Dr. Coomson asked the nurse to get me an apron and gloves. We had to put in a suprapubic catheter into an old man who had an obstruction that wasn’t allowing him to release the urine from his bladder. He was too old to have an operation so they decided to put a catheter directly into his bladder through the abdomen. Dr. Coomson made a small incision and then clamped the catheter tube with a forcep. He handed it to me and told me to push down as hard as I can until I felt a rip. Sceptical, but definitely willing, I did as I was told. I pushed and urine began to flow out through the tube and into the bag, much to Dr. Coomson’s satisfaction. He showed me how to do a proper stitch then allowed me to do the remaining few stitches. This was probably the most hands-on, doctor-like experience I had while I was in Ghana and it definitely confirmed my desires to go into surgery.

The rest of my time in the hospital was spent in this fashion, doing small things here and there, getting to know the doctors, and observing a lot. However, these were not the only things I did as a medical volunteer in Ghana.

Watching surgery

About once a week, we went on medical outreaches with Anna, a nurse from Central Regional Hospital, to villages and schools. Anna gave lectures about proper hygiene and sex education and we provided minor health services by treating ringworm, small infections, cuts and wounds, etc. This weekly experience helped me to apply a lot of the things I learned while at the hospital, and one weekend, a bunch of volunteers went to a rural village in Assin Praso to have our own one-day health clinic where almost 200 village people came.

Every week I also got a chance to do something outside of the medical-related area. On Tuesdays we took the kids from New Life Orphanage to Han’s Cottage to swim in the pool and see crocodiles in the nearby lake. They were the sweetest kids ever and they even gave me a tearful goodbye ceremony on my last day with drumming, dancing, poem-reading, and singing.

Needless to say, my experience in Ghana is one that can’t be fully expressed in mere words. It really is one of those “you had to be there” experiences. All I can say is that I gained so much from this trip. Educationally, I learned a tremendous amount about medicine and the practice of human care. It has made a big mark on my medical school application also, as almost all interviewers have spent a majority of the interview time to ask about my experience. However, my gains were not limited to the educational benefits, because I also created so many memories that have changed me in some way through the different people, culture, and ideas that really defined my experience and every time I think back to my time in Ghana, that’s what I remember.

Reuben Shin

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