Dr Helen Cranage spent two years in South Africa. Here’s a personal account of her time at Mosvold Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
After setting off to South Africa to work for one year, it’s with sadness that I’m now saying goodbye to all the fantastic colleagues and people that I’ve met there, after staying for two years. I worked at Mosvold Hospital, which is a 246-bed hospital in a rural Zulu-speaking town called Ingwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal. The hospital is close to the border with Swaziland.
It was with some trepidation that I set off for South Africa, unsure what to expect. Many doctors assume that most of the workload will be trauma and as a post-F2 doctor with a particular interest in psychiatry, I certainly didn’t have any plans to become a trauma surgeon! However, although there were trauma and many surgical cases, mostly I managed chronic diseases such as diabetes, TB and HIV, and chose to spend most of my time based in the OPD/emergency unit or in clinics.
The great thing about working in South Africa is that as there is such a great need for all types of medical services, there is great scope for developing any special interest that you have. For example, I found I mostly enjoyed working with patients with HIV, TB or psychiatric illness, so I spent time working in the isolation ward and visiting rural clinics. Other colleagues, for example, had a special interest in paediatrics and looked after the paediatric ward. Coupled with this, when you are on call, often as the only doctor in the hospital, with another doctor on the other end of a telephone for back-up, you get great all-round experiences managing absolutely everything and anything – and I really mean everything! After working in South Africa, you know you will have a plan for managing pretty much anything that comes your way.
I initially found it difficult, but ultimately incredibly interesting to work in a different language and culture. The nurses, who helped translate, helped me to pick up some conversational Zulu, but often it was cultural translation that I required. For example, I did not understand why so many patients had been attending me to consult about minor thorn related injuries until one of the nurses informed me that some people had heard that the thorn might enter their bloodstream, travel to their heart and puncture it! Quite a worrying prospect!
Of course, it was not all work during the two years. Some of the highlights of living in Ingwavuma included regular trips to beautiful Kosi Bay beach at the weekend, trips to Mozambique including the vibrant capital Maputo, walking down the mountain to Swaziland, and especially travelling to the capital of Swaziland to see Zimbabwean musical legend Oliver Mtukudzi play live.
Travelling to the clinics was a particularly enjoyable part of the job. It gave me an excuse to drive a large 4×4 for 50km through the sunny scenery to visit rural areas bordering Swaziland. At the clinics, I reviewed patients in conjunction with excellent primary healthcare nurses, who run the clinics, often only having access to a doctor via a telephone which, in one case, only had reception when standing on a specific grassy verge 10 metres from the clinic!
I’d encourage everyone, whatever field of medicine you’re interested in, to consider spending a year or two (or more) in South Africa. It’s an experience that I will never forget.
Originally published 8 January 2014