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Elizabeth Shackleton-Swain - Medicine in Argentina

In theatre

What a month! There’s so much to talk about the problem is where to begin! At the beginning I suppose. I arrived in Argentina extremely tired after over 24 hours of traveling. I was feeling nervous, and fairly worried but also completely excited about the month to come. To be honest I didn’t have a clue what I’d let myself in for. The realization that I was on my own half way around the world not knowing on a soul and without my parents was fairly overwhelming.

My worries feel silly now on reflection, as by the time I went to bed that night, I knew I was going to have an amazing experience. My host family was a lady called Marta and her extended family who all live in the one house, I also had another volunteer housemate called Taylor who was here with me for two weeks.

My medical placement

I had the amazing privilege to be given my placement at Vincente Aguero Hospital in Jesus Maria. I was worried about this to start off with, as it’s an hour away from the main city where most of the other volunteers are but I soon realized that actually I was in the perfect place for me. I had no expectations really on my arrival, but if I did have any, the hospital was a million times better than I could have ever expected. Thankfully, my Spanish is decent so I could communicate fairly well with both the patients and doctors. The doctors were amazingly welcoming to me and within days I felt like part of the team.

With medical staff

The hospital isn’t small but it’s not one of the biggest, I had thought I’d get to see some more exciting stuff in the bigger hospitals. However after the month I spent there, I don’t think I possibly could have seen more. After meeting all the doctors they soon organized to have me come to their wards and I spent every day doing something completely different.

On my first day alone I saw an emergency cesarean, a completely severed lip, a strangulation case and a heart attack. As fantastic as this was, I thought have I peaked? Is this going to be the best day of the month, surely everyday can’t be this interesting/fun. But honestly, every single day was an adventure and I learnt so much while having loads of fun. Throughout the month I built up strong relationships with all of the doctors involved (especially the newly qualified junior doctors who had started in the hospital the same time as me) and so towards the end of the month I was allowed to help with more practical tasks – cleaning wounds, helping with stitching, being a scrub nurse in surgery etc.

Working with the Argentinean medical staff

The junior doctors really helped me, giving me Spanish Medicine lessons when we had any free time so I would understand all the complicated cases and they were always explaining simply to me the patient’s treatments and basically just teaching me the ropes. Everyone has to start somewhere was their motto! We all became very good friends and even socialized a little outside of work on a few nights, they may work hard, but they definitely partied hard too!

Host family

However, while working, the highlight of my trip had to be the autopsy I conducted with the hospital’s amazing pathologist Dr. Camara. It was common knowledge to the entire hospital who I was by the time the third week arrived and I had definitely settled in. However I was still surprised when at around 3pm (I normally finished work at around 2 unless I was in the emergency department) I received a phone call asking if I could come back to work because there was going to be an autopsy.

The doctor wanted me to assist if I was happy to. I practically sprinted into a taxi back to the hospital and ended up only arriving home around 9pm. Under the watchful supervision of Dr.Camara I conducted the autopsy. Dissecting the entire body and all the organs separately before Dr. Camara helped explain what we had found. The man had died from chronic pneumonia. This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, it let me do loads practical work (as I had to then stitch the man back up) and also let me use some of that biology knowledge that I have. Somehow I think I’ve been spoiled by the hospital in general, especially being in the morgue. I’ll arrive at medical school having done it all already; nothing will be exciting (yeah, yeah, done that already. What next?!) My host family thought I was genuinely mad to do the autopsy but the doctors understood my excitement. I couldn’t stop talking about it for days afterwards!

Weekends in Argentina

Argentina as a place was also amazing and I met some amazing people along the way, both volunteers and Argentineans as well. At weekends I made the most of my time off and saw loads of Argentinean life. For example, climbing up Pan de Azucar Mountain and visiting Alta Gracia and also going to a chocolate fair for the day were some of the highlights along with being shown how the Argentineans party in their Bollechés (definitely worth going to - just don’t count on getting ANY sleep that night!)

My future medical career

Exploring the country

The medicine I’ve experienced has made me excited for my future (hopefully) as a doctor and it has further confirmed to me that this is exactly what I want to do, and I know no matter how hard it is to get there, this month will keep me motivated to keep going. The hard work will be definitely worth it. At the moment I feel completely captivated and fascinated by medicine and feel inspired about seeing what difference I could make to medicine overall or even just patients’ lives at some point in the future.

Overall, Argentina has had a major impact on my life. Being only 17 I suppose before I arrived I was going through that awkward phase where you’re not quite an adult, but your teenage years are almost over and you’re ready for something to really impact you and help you shift into adulthood. Argentina was this for me. It helped me reassess my future, my attitude to life and made me more mature. I have learnt some valuable lessons about how to conduct myself through life and my priorities have now shifted in the right direction.

I believe the experience has changed me forever. I’ll always cherish the time I had in Argentina, the people I‘ve met and the values I’ve learnt. Overall I truly believe it’s helped shape who I will be throughout my life. It really was an incredible month. I thank everyone so much who made my experience this wonderful; I honestly will never forget it! I arrived back in England a different person.

Elizabeth Shackleton-Swain

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