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Volunteer Review: Kendal S., Medicine in Sri Lanka

Palm trees in Sri Lanka

My name is Kendall Saravanamuttoo, I am 17 years old and I live in Ottawa, Canada. During my grade 11 year at school, my friend Reilley and I were looking to do something worthwhile and rewarding before going into our last year of high school. We came across Projects Abroad and immediately fell in love with the idea of an opportunity to volunteer in a medical setting in a developing country.

In picking our destination, Sri Lanka was a pretty easy choice for me. I have always loved traveling, but have never been to Asia, so the idea of going to a brand new continent excited me. Also, my great grandpa was originally from Sri Lanka, which is why my last name is Saravanamuttoo (which means “pearls of the gods”) so I wanted to experience a culture with some of my heritage.

I have always wanted to work in the health field, so the Medicine High School Special seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities to work or volunteer in hospitals in Ottowa, so the idea of getting this type of experience as well as explore a new culture, made the project that much better. This was a great way to experience a new culture, yet still feel safe, given the support from the Projects Abroad team.

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Participating in a community medical outreach

The trip started with a long journey that included a twelve-hour flight to Dubai, followed by a 6-hour flight to Colombo. Although the flight there felt surprising fast, we had a few issues once we got to the airport as none of the bags from Dubai had arrived! We spent a couple hours waiting for our bags, and then went on to wait in a long line as we tried to communicate with the locals to ensure our bags would be sent to our guest house. Once we sorted this all out, we walked out into the greeting zone where a Projects Abroad employee had been patiently waiting for us (we had no way to communicate the delays to him). He greeted us with open arms, and right away helped us exchange our money into rupees and get SIM cards for our phone (make sure your phone is unlocked if you want to change your SIM card).

When we got to our guest house, it was pretty late at night, yet we were still greeted warmly by our host mum and dad, who kindly offered us delicious Sri Lankan tea, roti and bananas. I was surprised by how big and nice the house was. We were the first ones to arrive from our group, but got a chance to meet some of the people from the project before us and hear all about their experiences.

The next day, the rest of the nine volunteers started arriving from all around the world. We all found instant connections and I now have some of my best friends from places like England, Ireland, Dubai, Germany, and the USA. We became like a second family to each other, supporting each other along the trip. Our group of 11 was smaller than most. We had two houses very close to each other, one with six of us and the other with three. We often spent our free time in the house playing our favourite card game: President!

My medical placement

Volunteers on a weekend trip to the beach

The next day, we took a tour of Panadura with the local staff and our supervisor. We got a chance to visit the two hospitals where we would be placed: the woman’s hospital and the Panadura base hospital. It was incredible how different the hospitals were from home, as everything was much more open. There were even stray dogs and cats walking around! We got familiar with the streets and with the grocery store that we went to almost every day to purchase staples. For me, this was large bottles of water, crackers, and Twix bars (to remind me of home!)

After getting settled in, we then began our work at the hospitals. Each day, we were paired up with a partner and each group went to different wards of the hospital. We got to shadow the doctors and observe their daily work. We usually spend about three hours in the morning in a certain ward, and then went back to the guest house for lunch (which was about a two-minute walk away). In the afternoons, we would spend another two hours in a different ward.

The wards in the base hospital included the PCU (or primary care unit), paediatrics, general medicine, and surgery. In the woman’s hospital, there was the labour room, and the ICU. Each day, we rotated between wards with everyone having a chance in each ward. Everyone would see different things – some days would be more exciting than others depending on the ward or your interests, but it was always nice because everyone got a chance to hear about everyone else’s day and their experiences.

This project is all about making the most of it and engaging yourself. When you hear this before you leave, remember it! In each of the wards, the local staff introduce you to the lead doctors, however after that, it is up to you to engage. I always tried to go up to the doctors and ask about what they were doing. \ Most of the doctors were extremely welcoming, and had decent English, so they were happy to explain patient charts and procedures. There were some doctors less willing to help or explain things to you, but if this happened I just moved onto the next doctor. This also gave me good insight into how personalities of different doctors can vary.

Although I enjoyed all of the wards, surgery was my favourite in the base hospital. I was one of the last to get a chance in the surgical ward and I waited patiently to experience my turn. Upon arrival, we got suited up in scrubs, a hair net, and a face mask; I felt like a surgeon myself! It was a busy day at the hospital and I got to see procedures such as a tendon repair in a hand, a large stomach wound that was being closed, a fractured leg (they had to clean the actual bone), a tracheotomy, endoscopy, and more. The surgeon who was operating on the tendon repair gave us a step by step of what he was doing and why he was doing it; that was incredible and very informative.

At the woman’s hospital, I thoroughly enjoyed the labour room. My partner was sick that day, so I went alone. I was a little intimidated at first, but it turned out to be one of the most fascinating days. About two minutes after walking into the labour room, I witnessed my first ever live birth. I was a bit shocked, but it was very cool. I also quickly noticed how different the labour room was from what a Canadian one would be like. For instance, all the women were in the same room with just a thin curtain between them, and no husbands were there. Seeing the mothers with their new babies and their big smiles was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity!

This is just my first week. The second week was filled with more rotations through the hospital wards, however, there was also a beach day and two medical outreaches in the communities. After getting a run down on diabetes and how to take blood pressure and sugar levels, we were ready for the outreaches. This allowed us to work with pharmacists and doctors, but also the opportunity to take blood sugar and pressure levels of the locals. In the two days of the outreaches, our group helped over 400 people get basic free healthcare and refills on medication if needed.

Traveling in Sri Lanka

A cow on a Sri Lankan street

After our first week in Panadura, we took a weekend trip to Kandy, which is in the middle of the country. Along the bus trip to Kandy, views of luscious palm trees and forests were everywhere. The landscapes were quite different from the beach town of Panadura, and the climate was actually quite a bit cooler. We started off the weekend at an elephant orphanage where we got to bathe the elephants in the river! We also got to experience a tea factory and witness where the tea we had been drinking came from.

Once we arrived in Kandy, people were already lining up on the streets to watch the Perahera that was going to take place in the evening. We ended up getting a view from a balcony and saw hundreds of elephants, fire dancers, and more to celebrate the festival of Buddhism. The next day we explored the city, stopping at wood carving shops and the local market and visiting temples. On our way back home, we stopped for pizza, which was such a treat after eating lots of rice and curry!

After two amazing weeks, it was time to say our goodbyes as most people were heading home. My friend and I ended up traveling for an extra week on our own where we went to Borderlands, an outdoor eco-lodge. We spent the week rafting, cannoning and swimming while getting to enjoy the beautiful views. This trip is one that I will never forget, and the memories I made will last a lifetime. Picking the Medicine High School Special in Sri Lanka could not have been a better experience!

Kendal S.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.

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