Ghana

Posted on April 10, 2011

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The last few weeks of school seemed to fly by and I had little time to reflect after it had finished; five days into the summer I was on a plane heading to Ghana. The company I was travelling with was called Global Volunteer Projects and I would be based in the University Hospital of Cape Coast (UHCC) and I would be staying for a month. The plane journey was particularly interesting as I was sitting with a middle aged Ghanaian woman who had a huge fear of flying and insisted on holding my hand the whole way. I also realised that I had forgotten my Yellow Fever booklet as soon as the doors of the plane had shut. Only the booklet that the World Health Organisation insists on seeing before letting people into African countries. So as you can imagine my six hour flight was very relaxing.
Before I left the country, I went through the gruelling procedure every person travelling to a third world country does: vaccinations! I possibly could be vaccinating a child during the clinic visits around the hospital so I was determined to get some practice in doing them. Judy at the Health centre kindly let me inject myself in the thigh several times. The way to give a muscular vaccination is to find a really fleshy bit of muscle, aim 90 degrees to the surface, quickly puncture the skin, pull the syringe out slightly to make sure a vein has not been caught and slowly inject the vaccination. (These instructions with a REAL emphasis on speed of puncturing). I, however, failed to be quick. In fact I failed to be even moderately speedy. It just went against every concept I had to stab myself in the thigh with a needle. So I did it painfully slowly which causes the most discomfort. Even Judy was wincing.
The aim of this trip was to get an inside view of a hospital in areas I would not be allowed to see in England, due to all the paper work and confidentiality agreements for patients. This, as well as seeing the differences in an African hospital compared to a wealthy English hospital. Even though I knew that medicine was something I was committed to do, I knew that I had never had any experience anywhere near the deep end and I knew I might be shocked and disgusted by what I was going to see. Though I’m now working as a Healthcare Assistant in a UK hospital, I realise the reality in England is a little different than in Ghana. This trip could never have happened if it was not for the extremely generous Travel Award given to me by the school. 
On arrival in Accra airport, the welcoming, very warm and humid air greeted me as I exited the aeroplane. I successfully got through customs without anyone there even knowing what a Yellow Fever Book was! I met the Global Volunteer Project’s Ghanaian manager, Eric, outside and he took me to a taxi to take me to the “Pink Hostel” where I would be staying for the night before leaving for Cape Coast. I quickly found out that taxi drivers in Ghana could not afford seatbelts. Once in my hostel room, Eric shouted from outside, “lock the door!”. I suddenly turned into a real hypochondriac, especially after seeing the first flying insect and decided to douse myself entirely in mosquito repellant and plug in the mosquito killer perfume to the wall. Throughout this account I will be leaving little bits of advice every now and again. 
Shortly after being shown around the city of Cape Coast, I was introduced to my roommate Alex from Somerset. He was almost taller than Peter Crouch . Alex and I formed a really great relationship and had each other to whinge to about lack of certain food products. We stayed with a family called the Cannes who owned the whole 1st floor of an apartment block. Our room was first from the front door and we slept on mattresses made of sponge and pillow covers filled with shredded sponge. I didn’t have a sheet or a duvet and the first night I realised that I didn’t necessarily need one with the temperature staying the same (30oc) as the daytime. Alex had already been there for 10 days, so could show me the ropes: how to lock the bathroom with a bent nail, what to say to the family during meal times and advice on certain food. A solid piece of advice that I feel is nearly always right is that the best tasting food abroad will always be a local dish rather than their version of a Western or English meal. That evening we went out and met the other two volunteers who lived next-door, Emma and Emma. All four of us wanted to study Medicine.
The next day I woke up at 6am to start my first day of work. I had my first cold shower, which was not too bad if I just went for it. The day plan, which would be the same for every weekday in Cape Coast, went like this; after a cold shower, I would be given my breakfast: baked beans with chopped onions. Then I’d get my daypack ready and set off towards the taxi rank. The taxis were like buses with a set route costing 20p to the hospital. After finishing at 2pm, I would go back home for lunch (Sardines from the tin) and then at 3pm head over to the Human Service Trust Orphanage down the road. As I was there to entertain and play with the kids, I would try and find great activities for them to take part in. T-shirt making was very popular. But I spent most of the time brainwashing the Essien loving Chelsea fans into Red Devils. I would also help them with their homework. Afterwards, in the evening I would have a beef or chicken curry with rice and then head out to Cape Coast town with the volunteers from other parts of the city.
At the hospital I would rotate weekly to different wards. I started in the general ward where many patients suffered from gastroenteritis and cholera. On my first day I was taken in to theatre and watched a hernia operation. This was the first operation I had ever seen and I was interested to see how I would handle it. It really was amazing to see how basic an operation seems. A lot of grabbing and pulling and cutting! I did find myself getting tired and my legs ached as an operation like this typically lasts around an hour. (From the time of the patient being put under anaesthetic and waking up). The second week I moved into the Family planning ward where I would spend most of the time weighing two-month-old babies and giving them vitamin B drops. It was all very sweet, however, I was the first Bruni (white boy) they had ever seen and they all took it differently. Some babies found the whole situation quite hilarious while others were outraged and terrified. Either way, if I was at a loose end, pulling horrible faces and shaking my eyes always brought about a reaction! I moved the following week into the labs. Inside the room where patients come in to give urine and blood samples was a shelf with specimen jars similar to those in the Biology Lab. Though a little different from the classroom, one of these jars contained a six-month-old pickled baby. I decided to spend most of the time in a different room. That week I learnt how to take HB counts (number of haemoglobin in the blood), blood types and what to look for under the microscope for the malaria parasite. And the last week I spent in the Children’s Ward. I watched one child have his appendix removed but initially the doctors could not tell what the problem was. This was a perfect example where an MRI machine or CT scan would have prevented such a huge cut of the abdomen. Seeing surgery throughout the month I stayed there was a real treat. In total I saw five operations. Two of which brought life into this world via a caesarean section, one of the most gruesome operations to watch and another resulting in a death. This was the first time I had experienced death so close to me physically and I felt disturbed as I was chatting to the man before he was put to sleep. I was the last person he would have spoken to. I also did a night shift which was, unfortunately, very uneventful indeed.
On the weekends we were free to do our own thing. I had four weekends and did not want to waste them. The first Saturday was shortly after I arrived and Alex had already persuaded the Emmas to go to a village that was on stilts on a lake. It was situated right by the Ivory Coast-Ghana border near the sea. The area was almost untouched and was extremely beautiful. We did not stay in the village but in a tourist resort called Bay Inn which really was luxurious, not only were there warm showers and luxury romantic beach huts but the place was run by a friendly English husband and wife. The price of one night in a luxury beach hut was about £10 each and we got one for the boys and one for the girls. Inside each hut was a queen size four-poster bed with mosquito nets, en-suite showers and leading outside, a large wooden terrace looking out to the sea through palm trees. Unfortunately in the evening Alex came down with serious flu and began vomitting all over our hut. It was decided that I would have to sleep in the girls’ beach hut. Interesting, as I first met them two days before. There was neither fans nor air-conditioning so I deciding to sleep with a small bag of water on my chest. (In Ghana, water comes in little bags for 5p) I woke up in the night and the bag had exploded under me and spread over to the two girls. The village on stilts itself was fascinating however; I think we just enjoyed playing in the sea and breaking coconuts. This would be the most luxurious trip of the month.
The next weekend, Claire a second year Oxford Medical Student persuaded us to travel up to the National park Mole, famous for its size and Elephants. The trip would take two days and in total 15 hours pure driving. We would travel in little minibuses called Tro-Tros, which were less safe than being in a car with Harry Hopkins driving. On the first day after 5 hours of being cramped in one of these buses we stopped at the midpoint city, Kumasi, a buzzing place with holes in the floors for public toilets. We decided we would avoid staying there and get on an overnight large Tro-Tro going to the next stop Tamale. This was about the size of a Bedales minibus but instead of the fifteen or so passengers a safe minibus would take, this Tro-Tro took forty people. Most of the weight came from the luggage on the roof. This trip took 13 hours. 3 of which were spend in the middle of nowhere when a tyre burst. We all were exhausted at this point and I decided to sleep on the road while waiting without any care for oncoming traffic. When we arrived we were half way there. The trip basically was long, uncomfortable and out and out a waste of time as all the Elephants seemed to be having the afternoon off. Never, ever, ever travel from Cape Coast to Mole. (And don’t use the loos!)
The third weekend I spent in a motel on a lake with crocodiles. I even touched one. Eric had arranged a party for all volunteers there. It was also on this weekend that three of us decided to visit the kids at the orphanage for an afternoon of football. However, when we got there we noticed that something was up and they all seemed rather quiet. One of them told us that some of the girls were not very well. So taking into hand the things we had learnt about common illnesses in the area, we took the kids’ temperatures and pulses. They all had high fever and had a very quick heart rate. The conclusion was: they had malaria. They all shared a dorm and a mosquito with the parasite must have bitten them all. We jumped in a taxi with the five kids and took them to UCCH. Here the doctor confirmed that had malaria and one child also had cholera as well. We paid for the medication and they went home the same day. That Monday when we visited, the five children were back to their playful selves. 
And finally, and most interestingly the last weekend. By this time all the original volunteers had returned back home and were replaced by a lovely new group of volunteers, Kim + Rob, Tim, Jonny my new room mate and Rachel. I found that some people thrive in conditions where they are lacking basic requirements. I was in a group where we all found the lack of English standards good hysterical fun. I thought as it was my last weekend, I wanted a bit of luxury and decided to return to the Bay Inn. We got a Tro-tro and asked the driver, Mr. James if he could take us home the next evening for a very reasonable prize. He agreed and left his phone number. We repeated the same thing I did the first weekend except this time we woke up at 3am to go Turtle watching on the beach. Like the elephants though, none seemed to like us and so we returned to our huts disappointed. The following evening we sat patiently waiting for the Tro-tro after having celebratory drinks for my last weekend. We waited and waited and I decided to call Mr. James. All he said was ‘Can’t, too dangerous’. As you may know, I don’t get angry very often even when I’m in a dorm with Adam Kent, but I really lost my temper and asked him why he didn’t decide to call us earlier to say. All he did was laugh and said it’s too bad. The Bay Inn managers an English couple were very helpful and charitable until the time when we asked if we could stay another night. They apologised and said they were full up. We explained that we had nowhere to stay and would it be possible just to sleep on the floor of the reception where it was safe. They politely declined and said it was bad for business. Now this area is not the safest place and they previously had advised us not to enter the town there. The whole situation was very hurtful as here were a husband and wife with two children casting out us young and naive into the dangerous unknown. The only road there was made of sand and no car would drive us anywhere at nights. (Machete armed criminals often robbed cars on that road at night.) Later, the manager said that he had arranged for us to stay with his friend in town and he got his gardener to take us there. This place was non-existent and when we started to be swarmed by yelling locals one of whom was armed with a machete, we decided we best return to the Inn. Luckily for us, in the student huts there were other Global Volunteer Project volunteers who were based in a different city but we knew them quite well, one of whom was Claire. The manager said we could stay with them if we promised not to make too much noise. We all went crazy with delight and started to continue the drinks. When we merrily strolled over to the huts with our new made best friends there began to be some awkward waffle amongst Tim and one of the volunteers. They all had decided that they didn’t want us to sleep in their huts as they had paid for it and sent us out to sleep in the hammocks on the beach with a few mosquito nets. They said not to worry, as we would be allowed to stay there for the few hours they went on their Turtle watch. Outside, the wind is strong and yet the bugs are abundant. Tim and Rachel came down with Malaria several days after. I remember a point where we were all huddled together outside of their terrace and one of them opened the door and asked us to go to reception giving us the shoo gesture. Seeing as half these volunteers were already at Medical School it was interesting to wonder what kind of doctor they would become, empathetic and kind or socially inept and obnoxious? My last piece of advice is that one should expect some people who you know really well to change at times when they are vulnerable or sleepy. Certainly, I learnt that from the group of friends I was with that night I could trust them totally. Interestingly, Claire texted us the next day. We all thought it would be a long drawn out Oxford-like apology. It was not; they wanted compensation for their disturbed night! 
Shortly after the last weekend, we got one of the host family members to call Mr. James and ask him to pick up a group all the way from Mole on the weekend. When he called up asking where the group was after he had arrived, the response was ‘we didn’t travel, it was too dangerous..’ 
All in all, the trip taught me how to organise myself and to think independently especially at difficult times. Thanks again so much to the school for allowing this trip to happen. In terms of how things are doing in my application I have been offered places at Bristol and St Georges and I have accepted St Georges.

 

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