Fueled by Frustration in Africa

How one student's journey influenced her decision to go into medicine

March 2015

I will confess my venture into global health first began as a college student with the selfish hope to fulfill a childhood dream to go to Africa, with an idealistic naivety that I was about to change the world with a single visit.

I packed my bags full of limited medical supplies, lightweight clothes that could be rolled up to save room, plenty of bug spray, and hopped on the plane for a three week trip to Tanzania. Before I left, I remember a friend distinctly saying,“That will be an eye-opening experience.” I smiled and agreed, feeling a warm rush of pride that is unique to self-promoted altruism when you have no idea what true altruism actually is.

Here is how it actually went. We visited three rural villages including Bumbuli, Rombo, and Faraja. I got accustomed to not having hot water (or light when I showered), using Band-Aids to fix up the holes in mosquito nets, and the casual slang including “Mambo” (“What’s up?”) in Swahili. We spent the first part of every visit walking miles around the villages, evaluating and triaging local residents. This included seeking out patients with acute or chronic illnesses as well as evaluating their housing situations and sanitation. Days later, we would set up a clinic in the center of the village. Patients would come to us, most of whom we had seen during our triage visits, from the very young to the eldest. With the coordinated help of local translators and local doctors, we would perform general physicals, draw blood for malaria tests, and hand out the limited medical supplies we had including short-term anti-malarials.

What did I learn during this? When we had no electricity one day and relied upon the sun to look through microscopes for malaria in the blood of our patients, I learned that having technology means nothing when you do not have electricity or infrastructure to uphold it. When a child had a dental problem but lacked the five dollars to get to the city for proper treatment, I learned that I had just started to peel away the first layer of complexity involved in global poverty and underserved health access.

My eyes were opened. I was seeing red. Frustration at the inequity and lack of resources made my blood boil. However, retrospective reflection has brought me to understand that having frustration is a good motivator. It is that frustration that led me to medicine and what continues to light a fire beneath me in an effort to unravel and solve these problems. This is why I will continue to travel, to seek what is unfamiliar, difficult, and learn a thing or two. As Henry Miller says, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Hopefully, when we put our heads to rest in our comfortable beds and take our heated showers, we will not forget where we have been.

Note: Click image below to enlarge.

By Mindy Licurse, MD

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