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Voices: Dr Quirine Huijgen (Netherlands)

Abridged transcript of interview with:

Dr Quirine Huijgen (Netherlands)
Placement: Holy Cross Hospital, Eastern Cape
Dates: March 2016 – 2017.

I was always interested in going to work abroad. So, after I completed my basic medical training [in the Netherlands], I specialised in tropical medicine.

Initially I was interested in working for Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF). But during the tropical course I met several people who had worked in South Africa – some for two years, some for five years – and they were very enthusiastic about the life and work here.

So, when I graduated, I wasn’t sure whether to go for MSF or to South Africa, and I actually applied to both.

In the end, I decided to follow my dreams and go for MSF first. I worked for a year with MSF in Papua New Guinea and in South Sudan.

After that year, I thought, “What’s next?” With MSF, it’s a very particular experience, with the work-life balance tilted in favour of work. In South Sudan, for example, we were not even allowed to leave the compound.

I felt like I now wanted to work somewhere where I could work hard and do my job and be exposed to a lot of things that we’re not necessarily exposed to at home, but I also wanted to have fun, to visit places, to meet with friends, to get out, to discover, to travel. I was looking for a new experience.

So, as soon as I came back, I started picking up my process with AHP again.

I chose AHP for several reasons. Mainly, I wouldn’t have known where to start without them. I wouldn’t have had a clue how to go about getting a job in South Africa. The process is long and the bureaucracy is incredibly complicated.

Also, I had been involved with organising a conference in the Netherlands for tropical doctors, and AHP always sent a representative there, who would explain to people what AHP offered and what it was all about. So when I decided that I wanted to come to South Africa, it was obvious that I would go through AHP.

My registration story, to be honest, was not the perfect picture. It was two-sided. AHP really supported me: they answer all your queries very fast; they tell you which steps you need to take, and what to do next. But at the same time, the process is long and frustrating.

I came to South Africa at the beginning of March 2016, and attended an introductory course straight away, in Durban. The course was about HIV and TB, and at that stage I didn’t know much about either. On the course, I also met a lot of other people who had come to the country through AHP. And those are the people I’ve been seeing socially for the last year – having contact, spending weekends together. So from various points of view, that was an important introduction.

Work at the hospital has not disappointed me. We have to work hard, very hard, under pressure. There are very few of us, and many patients. But I guess that’s the story of medicine in rural South Africa.

There have certainly been moments when I’ve felt overwhelmed, when I’ve thought, “Maybe I have to go home”. But in the end, the fact that I’m still here tells the story.

I was also waiting for my partner to come, and he’s here now. He’s also working here as a doctor. That has made a big difference.

Every day you learn a lot, you never know what the day will bring. I’m doing paediatrics now, but I’m also spending a lot of time in OPD and A&E. My day can start with a sick neonate; then move to theatre for a C-section; after that I might be putting in chest drains in casualty or dealing with HIV cases in OPD – which you almost never see at home.  So definitely it’s a very, very good learning experience.

We also have a very beautiful nature reserve at the back of our hospital. It’s called Mkambathi. It’s not very famous. I think almost no one ever goes there. But it’s really beautiful. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. You can only get there by 4×4.

Overall, I think it’s a very positive experience that I would recommend to people for several reasons: this is a very beautiful country; the salary is good, which means you can afford to do a lot of fun stuff; and also you can really make a difference in people’s lives.

I would also say: be prepared for a lot of challenges. You learn a lot not only about medicine, but also on a personal level.

I’d also recommend that people bear in mind that the application process can take long. Don’t sit around and wait for your permit. Do something useful in the meantime. Or else, start ahead of time, +/- 18 months before you want to come.

And lastly, consider learning a bit of Xhosa or Zulu before you come. People really appreciate it a lot if you can speak a bit of the local language.