UWS Medical Students Arrive in South Africa

In mid-November a group of four University of Western Sydney (UWS) medical students travelled to South Africa for a 5 week elective placement at the Emmaus Hospital, located in the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province. The arrangement for this elective program with Emmaus Hospital is the result of partnership developed several years ago between the UWS Medical Schools Global Health Group and the African AIDS Foundation (AAF).

The four students currently in south Africa are Laura Willmann, Carmen MacDonald, Hussain Al-Ramadani and Michael Cheung. Laura blogs here about their arrival in South Africa.

The highway out of Johannesburg is unexcitingly straight, and it was easy to convince ourselves that we were still in Australia. Then solitary flat topped mini-mountains intermittently drifted past us as we took advantage of the 120 km speed limit, and it started to sink in a little. We knew we were half a world away when our TomTom directed us on a road hazardously riddled with potholes but gave us the most spectacular view of the mountains and Kwa-Zulu Natal province. We stopped several times to stand in awe (and buffeting wind) and take photos, which unfortunately couldn’t completely capture the magnificent landscape.

We were warmly greeted on arriving in Bergville by Paneng Mohlakoana and Monika Holst of the Philakahle Well Being centre (AAF’s partner organisation). Paneng got us settled in at the Zamimpilo Training Centre, where we were quickly charmed by the quaint rondavels and lovely gardens in the complex. It was both reassuring and confronting to see the razor wire fences and strong bars and locks on the windows and doors to remind us that poverty, illness and violence runs under the pleasant surface of this community.

Emmaus Hospital (pronounced like ee-mouse) is a small, under resourced hospital providing free medical services in this region. After a little hiccup, when we realised the doctors weren’t expecting our arrival (as we were unaware that our placement supervisor suddenly resigned 2 months ago) we quickly settled into familiar routines of ward rounds in the morning. We spend our afternoons in the outpatient clinic, which doubles as the emergency department, or the operating theatre mostly for emergency caesarean deliveries. The doctors here strongly follow the principle of “see one, do one, teach one” and are keen to teach us and encourage our involvement despite being incredibly busy keeping up with the endless stream of patients. You never quite know what’s going to come next through the door.

It is so incredible.

After a busy week at the hospital, our first weekend was a treat. The weather forecast was gloomy with thunderstorms expected both days, but Saturday morning was bright and beautiful. We booked a helicopter flight in the Drakensburg mountains, and it was fantastic!! We took so many aerial photos (until the batteries in our cameras died) and got some great panoramas from our vantage point on the Little Berg where we had glasses of champagne and appletiser. The pilot swooped low off the cliff face to give us a thrill!

We stayed the night in the Royal Natal National Park in one of the gorgeous little lodges at Thendele (pronounced ten-dey-ley) and watched the storm. The weather was too wet and frigid to hike on Sunday (that didn’t stop some courageous trekkers though!) but we didn’t want to leave so we paid a little extra for a late checkout to drink tea on the doorstep against an epic backdrop … and then buried ourselves in blankets to watch a movie.

There is a workshop this week at Zamimpilo so we’ve met a lot of very friendly people; it’s a little relieving that they have almost as much trouble pronouncing our names as we do theirs! They have such a musical culture and sang grace before dinner as beautifully as a professional choir.

Rose, the caretaker here, has been trying to teach us Zulu language with moderate success. We can say “hello,” “how are you,” and “thank you”, and we’re picking up a few words at the hospital too. Mostly we rely on the nurses to interpret for us because many of the patients in this area, unlike in the cities, do not speak English or only a know few words. I’m aiming to learn at least one new word a day, which is actually an easy target, but the challenge is remembering yesterday’s word too!