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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Study Abroad Stories: South Africa: tales from a rural hospital

Today I performed my first medical procedure: I extracted a massive booger from the nose of an 18-month-old.Not an ordinary booger, oh no; this was an epic, Africa-sized booger that required the use of not only my pinky but also my index finger. Just a day in the life of an American student working at a South African provincial hospital.

When I’m not practicing such complicated pediatric techniques, I am almost constantly in a state of shock. I’ve been seeing things that no amount of “House” episodes could have prepared me for. While I won’t bore you with the gory details, I will tell you that two out of the three students working at the hospital have already fainted on the job (I may or may not have been one of them).

The sorts of cases that fill the surgical ward are what we, as Americans, would consider bizarre oddities, but for the South African interns who were kind enough to take me on rounds with them, these are standard cases. I did my best to hide my horror and blend in with the interns, but it’s just not possible.

I am lucky enough not to see these things at home. What, to me is an exciting glimpse into the medical ailments of an African rural community is, to much of the world, the harsh realities of life. And the guilt really starts to sink in.

Upon entering the tuberculosis ward, where most of the terminal patients are kept, I paused at the box of medical masks. To wear one or not to wear one? By wearing one, am I saying to the patient, “You’re sick and icky and I’m scared of getting your disease and ending up like you”? Maybe. But if I don’t wear one, am I telling the masked nurses, “You know this illness everyone around you is dying from? I’m not worried about getting it because I’m privileged enough to afford treatment.”

And that’s the truth. For me, getting TB would be like getting the flu. Sure, my parents would probably have a collective heart attack if they found out their little girl had tuberculosis in South Africa. But one plane ticket to America later and I would be safe within the walls of Yale New Haven Hospital with my insurance footing the bill.

So what to do? I decided to take a mask with me and if the patients’ coughing got to be too much, I would put it on. As it turns out, my inner struggle was for naught. After about three minutes in the ward, the nurse approached me and insisted I put the mask on because many patients had multi-drug resistant TB.

Okay, I’m convinced. Multi-drug resistant anything sounds like the kind of illness I should avoid. So the mask went on, but the patients’ demeanor towards me changed. I was no longer willing to risk my own health just to hang out with them. Now, I was afraid. And they could tell.

Moments like that make me wonder who is gaining more from my presence here – the patients, or me? Yes, I am an extra set of hands for the terribly understaffed hospital. However, I am a set of obviously inexperienced hands that are sometimes occupied by a notebook and pen. When it comes down to it, I can only hope that the patients like having me around (and if I ever improve my Zulu, I can ask them). As for me, this is unquestionably the best thing I’ve ever done.

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