A Once-in-a-lifetime Experience in Ghana: Interning with Projects Abroad

A Once-in-a-lifetime Experience in Ghana: Interning with Projects Abroad

By: Cici Chenliu | International Co-op Student
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Going to Ghana with Projects Abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would never forget. In Summer 2010, I embarked on an unforgettable journey to Ghana. Ghana is a country in eastern parts of Africa. With little knowledge of this country, I arrived apprehensive yet excited. The first person I met off the plane was my guide and he welcomed me in true Ghanaian fashion - over the top and enthusiastically! From there I rode through Accra to my placement City - Koforidua.

The road trip to my host family was intriguing and scary all at the same time. What I didn't expect was the rich landscape that a sub-equatorial country can possess. There were lush forest-covered mountains and deep dividing valleys. And the cities! The cities were an entirely different story! Each city I rode through was buzzing with activity. The streets were filled with vendors and buyers as well as vehicles, big and small. Needless to say, that was the intriguing part; the scary part was the driving! The speed at which the driver whizzed around the winding, narrow mountainous roads was insane. It still baffles me how drivers there managed to avoid jaywalkers, oncoming traffic, goats and other animals that spontaneously decided to share the road. I was holding my breath all the way.

My host family was a family of five and my African Mommy was Agnes. Agnes is an elderly woman with three adult sons (my African brothers) who all worked away from home. My roommates were volunteers from abroad as well: Laura was from Scotland, Flan was from Eastern Canada and Thomas was from France.

Laura (centre) worked on building an orphanage and Flan (right) and Thomas (left) and I are all a part of the Medical Program. I arrived a few days before Thomas was leaving to replace him in the surgical department and Flan was starting in the Casualties (ER) department.

My first day in the ward was nerve racking because I didn't know what to expect. I knew from talking to other volunteers that the doctors will value you by how willing you are to learn and do. So for the next few days that's what I worked on. I arrived in the hospital every morning for rounds, asked questions and took notes. After the rounds I would help the nurses change wound dressings for all the patients in the ward. There I saw the kind of disabilities untreated diabetes can leave, what can happen to you when infections go untreated, what men go through when they're diagnosed with prostate cancer and have undergone life changing surgeries, and so on. I was amazed by the level of care the nurses provided for their patients through their heavy workloads as well as the amazing level of precision required for them to operate each day smoothly and efficiently. Soon after that first, daunting day I began to settle in to a routine.

Before I knew it, my first surgery day came. I was so pre-occupied with learning so much new material that I had, almost, forgotten about my true love - Surgery. With fascination and anticipation I watch my first day of surgery. Thinking retrospectively, I'm pretty sure it was purely adrenalin that kept me on my feet all day. It was a 10+ hours day of standing on my tip toes trying to get the best view of sliced open stomachs and gushing intestines. That night, as I collapsed onto the couch with my feet elevated above heart level to drain the pool of blood at around the general anatomical position of my ankles, I came to a determined conclusion: I love medicine! It was the most fascinating thing I've ever seen, I thoroughly admire the ability to open up a body cavity, be faced with a blob of internal organs – everything – and I know precisely where to go to find the problem and solve it. Then and there I knew that I want to maximize my time and learn as much as I can because I simply cannot get enough!

To do what I wanted to do - to assist surgeries and participate - was very difficult. I realized that it was rare as it is for a volunteer to be able to scrub in, let alone touch anything. So, I had to come up with a strategy. I realized that, like in school, learning was a dynamic process. It involved a significant amount of contribution from the learners to seek out knowledge and interaction from their most trusted resources - their peers. So, over the next two days I bugged all the interns to teach me stuff! They taught me how to tie and put in sutures, what the different suture lines and needles were used for and how the styles of stitching can be different depending on the wound. After that came practice, not on people of course... YET!

One day, about a week into my practicum, Dr. Amponsah. who was my Supervisor and also the surgeon general of the hospital, said to me, "Cici, want to try it out?". I blanked out for a moment and then said, "YES!!!"

Over the next three weeks, I assisted in countless number of surgeries, ranging from Emergency trauma surgeries to C-Sections, where I literally held the emerging fetus, and orthopedics surgeries as well as numerous general surgeries. And yes, I got to suture some of the surgical patients' closing wounds.

Aside from all the gory bits of details, I also enjoyed traveling around Ghana with other volunteers. We explored the landscapes of Ghana, enjoyed bargaining at the markets and making friends along the way.

Ghana definitely holds a defining moment of my life. Although it couldn't be counted as an International Co-op placement because it was only for a month, I still jumped at the chance of getting this experience. In hindsight, I would've tried to secure more internships to satisfy that requirement, but don't let that deter you from going on a journey that will change your life! When I was working there I felt like I was a part of an organization that makes a difference and continues to strive for excellence with only one purpose in mind - service. I was moved by the open attitude I received and the warm acceptance everyone provided. The experience of going abroad has touched me in an incomparable way that will remain in my memory forever.

Posted on May 06, 2012