Volunteers’ Stories: Rose
“My six months flew by, and I would have loved to have stayed on as there was so much more to be done, but I had to leave and I miss Mwaya every day. … There are so many moments that I will never forget, and I can’t thank RIPPLE Africa enough for what they do.”
I arrived in Malawi at the start of the rainy season in November 2011. I had high expectations of the six months ahead of me, and it was a whirlwind start with other volunteers coming to the end of their time and wanting to hand over patients. After this period, everything slowed and I found myself doing tasks that others were being paid for while they went off and talked to other people. This included things like taking blood pressures at the antenatal clinic or counting tablets at the ARV clinic. I would be somewhere different each day of the week, but still not doing anything I found rewarding.
After the first six weeks, the community had seen me regularly and had started to trust me and would come down to Mwaya Beach to ask me to see a family member who was unwell (this usually ended up being the whole family with a range of health complaints). At this stage, I was also travelling up to Chintheche once a week for the Rural Hospital’s ward rounds which were, at times, beyond challenging, and the lack of resources or not being able to transfer a patient who was acutely unwell to a hospital where they could actually get the correct treatment was at times devastating. The staff there seemed to lack the compassion we expect of health professionals in the West but, after working there on a regular basis, I realised it was a self-preservation technique. The patient load for the nurses was beyond Western belief, and doing vital signs on each of their patients would have at taken all but their whole shift. Wound dressings wouldn’t have been done for weeks and medications wouldn’t have been given. The paediatric ward was always overflowing and still the scariest place I have ever been. There were often two to three children per bed plus their guardians. Each patients’ notes would be written on a piece of scrap paper. I enjoyed little about these Wednesdays at the hospital but felt it was my time to learn and experience health in a rural African community.
I would run a wound clinic at another charity running nursery schools near Kande. This often turned into a referral system though; trying to get people with no money to places where they could be properly treated for ailments they had suffered with for years. I spent hours just walking to see patients in truly rural areas to diagnose and convince them that it was necessary for them to go to a hospital. One patient Fletcher and I walked over two hours to find – a man with diabetes, liver failure and potential heart failure – was insisting on being treated by the witch doctor. We successfully managed to convince him to go to a hospital, and he did improve and his family were very happy. By the time I got back to Mwaya Beach that day, it was well after dark and I had, of course, missed dinner. I was exhausted and heading to bed, only to be told by a night watchman that his wife was having severe chest pain. I discussed it with him further and decided that I had to sleep, though this did not come easily with my constant thoughts about what could be going on and guilt for not seeing her straight away. After seeing her the following morning and transporting her for tests, we didn’t have the diagnosis until three months later. It is not a happy story, but healthcare in Malawi rarely is.
In some ways, what we do there as volunteers is liking putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg but it helps more than we know; it shows compassion to a group of people who would otherwise be neglected. It shows an individual and their family that they are important. And, on the odd occasion you actually make a difference, the joy is enough to keep you trying and fighting for each patient.
It is a roller coaster ride being a healthcare volunteer. You have your successes, and that’s what I focused on. With no resources, saving people is a luxury. But they appreciate every effort you make, and they push you to do more as they believe in you. My six months flew by, and I would have loved to have stayed on as there was so much more to be done, but I had to leave and I miss Mwaya every day. The staff are some of the most beautiful people. They would often lift me up after a long, hard, disappointing day with singing, dancing, laughter, and kindness. The location could not be more idyllic, and often days would end by just running into the lake fully clothed and then chasing ama Geddess around for a hug. The staff love to laugh, and practical jokes either played on them or by them ended up with fits of laughter all round. There are so many moments that I will never forget, and I can’t thank RIPPLE Africa enough for what they do.
Rose (Volunteer Nurse, November 2011 – April 2012)