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Shauna Novobilsky - Medicine in Kenya

Free time in Kenya

The month I spent as a Medical volunteer in Nakuru, Kenya was the most rewarding learning experience of my life. I had dreamt of going to Africa from the time I was a child. I remember watching the Discovery Channel with my father, seeing all the sites and animals and thinking that I was going to go there one day. As I started to steer my life towards becoming a doctor, I could not think of a better place to get experience than the land I had always dreamt of visiting.

Arriving in Kenya

However, on the 1st of June as I left the airport in Pittsburgh it did not seem real and when I landed in Nairobi airport it still seemed like I was in a dream. I have always been a person who leaps without worrying where they land. I knew there would be differences in culture, language and society, but I did not put much thought into them. A member of the Projects Abroad staff picked me up at the airport. I watched in awe as they drove on the wrong side of the road and steering a wheel with no red lights or stop signs. I remember thinking “if you can drive here then you could drive anywhere!”

My friends in Kenya

I stayed at the guest house in Nairobi for a night before heading to the town of Nakuru. Here I was greeted warmly by my house mother, Jane, who instantly hugged me and made me seem very much at home. I later met my roommate, who had been in Kenya for about three months and she gave me tips on anything and everything.

My first few days were a crazy adaptation to the time difference and city, but by the time I left Nakuru the city had become like a second home for me. Mamma Jane introduced me to the Kenyan food and language. She also encouraged me to go out and explore the town and as a result I quickly adapted to life in Kenya.

My Medical Placement

I came to Africa to learn medicine and when I went to work at Langa Langa Health Clinic I knew that something was different about Kenya. I had not put my finger on it quite yet, but the clinic was very similar to life with Momma Jane. I was welcomed with open arms and instantly considered a staff member. As I rotated through the departments I was exposed to a plethora of medical knowledge.

In child care I was taught to admit, weigh and vaccinate babies and children. In family planning I was allowed to help with DEPO injections, remove Implanon and give advice on contraception methods. In the pharmacy and TB clinic I was able to supply drugs to sick patients and learnt about all the charting I have to look forward to in my future. The lab taught me to run tests for TB, pregnancy, malaria, diabetes and other ailments.

New born baby

My favourite department was the injection and dressing room. Here I learnt to give injections of penicillin and other useful drugs. I was taught how to properly dress a wound and how to use honey as an alternative to anti-biotic ointment. I learnt how to remove sutures with a razor blade rather than scissors. I also saw infections like cellulitis and learnt how to bandage the site. I learnt medicine and how to improvise, which was after all what I came for.

However, this is not the biggest lesson that I learnt from this experience. These moments taught me about medicine, but they did not help me grow as a physician. The moments that helped me grow came inside and outside the clinic and are what made this experience life-changing.

The first moment occurred about a week after I had started working at the clinic. I was working in the pharmacy and every day the staff would all pack into the pharmacy around noon (mind you this is not a huge room) for tea. None of them were angry or indifferent towards each other even though there were about five different tribes among them. There was this family in the clinic, a unity they had created among the staff that I have not found yet in America. I thought maybe this was just the clinic, but I was very wrong.

The second moment occurred while doing outreach in the Bodeni slums. We piled in this matatu with tons of medical equipment and then set up in a little shack. These were all Kenyan citizens taking time out of their busy days to help their own people. They did not ask for money or praise, they simply lined up asking what they could do to help. While I was treating patients in this little shack and seeing how happy they were to get medicine for their family, I realised what type of doctor I wanted to be. I did not care about the money or anyone knowing my name, all I cared about was what I could do to help.

This feeling was cemented after my experience at the Bodeni Maternity Ward. Once again I was welcomed here like I was one of them, but what struck me was how they treated the patients. This was not like in America where pregnant woman know their OB/GYN for nine months and this trusted person delivers their baby. Instead, the staff members met the pregnant mothers when they went into labour and showed up to the ward.

Volunteering in Kenya

However, the way that the staff talked them through labour and delivery, helped them to their beds afterwards and nestled their babies with them, you would have sworn they had known their patients for the entire nine months. This is the kind of doctor I hope to become. Whether I have known my patients for ten hours or ten years, I want them to know I am there to help them. These moments cemented what the patient-physician dynamic should be like and how the work place should be. I came to Africa to learn about medicine, but I learnt something much more important: how to be a doctor.

I learnt how to be a doctor, but I was not restricted to just my placement. I made tons of friends during this experience, some other volunteers and some Kenyan locals. Many weekends were spent with these wonderful friends, laying by the pool and exchanging stories of our weeks. We learnt to barter at the Masaai markets, the best places to get Wi-Fi access and where to get good food. Doing this as a group meant that we helped each other adapt and created close relationships, which makes being far from home so much easier.

During one weekend I travelled with five other volunteers to Thompson Falls, Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria. Here I got to see those sites and animals that I had fallen in love with as a child. My favourite scene was at Lake Bogoria. As we travelled down to the lake you could see pink everywhere. Upon reaching the lake you saw thousands of flamingos on an already breath-taking scene. It was a moment where I just stopped for a minute to take in the beauty that was before me.

I returned to the US with the stories and memories of a lifetime. This trip has been the most rewarding experience of my life, allowing me to delve into another language and culture and cementing that my future belongs in medicine. I have returned home to pursue my Medical degree, but Nakuru now has a special place in my heart and I know that I must return in the future.

Read more about Medicine in Kenya

Shauna Novobilsky

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