Rebecca Kazen - Winter Break Medicine in Sri Lanka
Volunteering in Sri Lanka was a way for me to step out of my comfort zone, experience a new culture, and learn more about medicine and medical practice in another country. From the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt welcomed by the culture and by the Projects Abroad staff. I participated in a two-week medicine volunteer project over Winter Break, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my Christmas anywhere else. I was a sophomore at the University of Colorado studying pre-health, and I was looking forward to a learning experience that I could not get at school. I learned more than I could ever expect at my placements at the hospitals and at the children’s home. I had an incredible experience in Colombo where I made memories that will last a lifetime.
The Sri Lanka experience
I lived in a beautiful house in Panadura, which is a small town on the coast about an hour away from Colombo. I lived with seven other girls that were the same age as I was and doing the same program. My host family was wonderfully welcoming, and it was fun to spend Christmas and New Years Eve with them. Our host mom was an incredible cook, and my roommates and I looked forward to dinner every night, because we knew it would be delicious. At dinner, each of us discussed what we had seen and learned at our placement that day, and what we were looking forward to for the next day. I shared a room with three other girls, but most nights we played card games in the living room, or sat together outside and enjoyed the cool ocean breeze. I grew very close to these girls, and to this day I keep in touch with a few of them.
My medical placement
During the day, we were sent to various medical placements at the base hospital and a women’s hospital in Panadura. I was always with another volunteer, and it was nice to share my experiences with someone else. All of the doctors were very kind and always willing to slow down and explain a procedure to us. It was slightly intimidating to be surrounded by local medical students and residents, but everyone was excited to help us learn. My favorite placement was the labor and delivery room. I had never seen a birth before, and I was very nervous and excited for that placement. The doctor was very good at explaining what she was doing, and it was incredible to see someone help bring a life into the world. I will never forget witnessing the immediate bond between a mother and her child.
I also enjoyed the hands on experience I gained at the free health clinic we put on in the tsunami-affected area outside of Panadura. We were able to offer free blood pressure testing, blood sugar testing, consultations with a physician, and medications. I learned how to test blood pressure and blood sugar a few days earlier, and I was able to use my skills to help those in need. Although I was very nervous to poke someone’s finger in order to test their blood sugar, I knew I was offering a service that these people may not have access to very often. It felt incredible to make an impact on a community and also learn new medical skills.
One of the most valuable things I learned in Sri Lanka was how to interact with patients that come from a different cultural background than I did. What may seem like a typical treatment to me may seem very scary and strange to someone from a different culture, who may not have grown up going to yearly checkups at the doctor or see television shows about doctors all the time like I did. It is also very important to take into consideration the different beliefs that a patient may have, and how that can affect how they receive and respond to the treatment. If someone does not believe that taking a tiny pill every day will make them less sick, they probably will not take the medication and their condition will not improve. It is important to learn more about your patient than just their medical history. In order to give them the best treatment possible, I learned that you must learn about and respect their culture and beliefs.
The only thing I regret about my time in Sri Lanka is that I wasn’t able to spend more than two weeks there. One day, I hope to return to the beautiful country and explore more. I learned a lot about healthcare and medicine while abroad, I got to help people in need, and I had a lot of fun. I would recommend to those traveling to Sri Lanka to arrive with an open mind and open heart, and to not let your fear of the unknown limit the learning experience waiting for you.