University of St Andrews 2012

Medical, Sri Lanka Kandy

‘Clare, I’m going to Sri Lanka for 6 weeks to do a placement with an elective company called Work the World, wanna join?’  That was all the encouragement I needed to sign up to one of the best summers I’ve ever had.

I was a third year medical student who, due to my course, had done very little clinical work and thought this would be a brilliant way to gain some real world experience before I started my clinical years in September.  I soon discovered that this trip was going to so much more.

We ran into some of our housemates as early as arrivals at Colombo airport where we flew in.  Meeting up with other students who were at the same stage of their medical training made me feel more positive as others would be feeling as overwhelmed as I was.  On the train ride from Colombo to Kandy we were thrown right into Sri Lankan living… it was a lot more fun than a train into London, and the views were so much better as well.

The first experience of the teaching hospital was definitely a culture shock, walking past animals on the wards and patients lying in the corridor made me wonder what I had let myself in for.  I was handed over to the doctors on my first ward: paediatrics.  I had a group of local medical students with me, who were able to translate patient’s histories. They were nearing the end of their placement and so also helped a lot with examinations.  I soon realised that getting to know the students would make my time in Sri Lanka a lot more fun, and I am still in contact with some of them.  Starting on my first ward by myself was pretty tough, and although I really enjoyed British company when it arrived, having to be proactive of my own accord was a really good experience.

I next spent a week on general surgery, with a few other elective students.  I found this a bit more of a learning experience than the paediatrics (apart from being able to make faces with the children which always brought the house down), as it was more hands on and the consultant really got involved with our teaching.  I also discovered that I don’t have the patience to sit through surgeries for longer than about an hour… obviously not a career path for me!

However casualty theatre was a real eye opener, and the doctor’s willingness to help us learn meant I got a lot of opportunities to assist in surgeries that I would rarely get in the UK.

My final two weeks were spent on Obs and Gynae.  This was such a contrast to the previous placements. I was in for longer and had a steeper learning curve, but still had a great time.  Again a fabulous group of medical students made the experience a lot of fun, and a couple of really friendly junior doctors meant I got a lot of experiences that I may never get in the UK.  It was here that I was really able to see the differences in patient care, and when 300+ patients need to be seen by about 5 doctors in a morning, speed was the focus in consultations.

Despite the long hours put in over the last two weeks our trip was as much about seeing the island and absorbing the culture as it was seeing how the hospital worked.  The other fantastic students we met in both Work the World houses meant that our evenings and weekends were full of amazing memories and road trips.  Students who had already been there a while advised us on where to go for the best weekend away, and coupling this with the knowledge of our Programme Managers and the tuk tuk driver we used regularly we were never short of options.  We got to see the beautiful landscapes found in the hill country. We tested our metal against the 5,800 steps to reach Adam’s Peak and absorbed the culture in the ancient cities and Dambulla cave temples. 

A short break to the beautiful beaches found in Trincomali was a brilliant contrast to our busy lives in the hospital and Kandy town.  I counted myself as fortunate that I was able to travel up to the northern part of the island, despite the recent troubles.  It is worth noting that some of the guidebooks paint a very bleak picture of this area, but although there is still evidence of the civil war, I would not describe it as war torn, and it seemed as safe as anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Closer to home we learnt our way about Kandy via tuk tuk, essentially a rick shaw with a moped engine.  Using a few regular tuk tuk drivers we soon discovered where to find the best smoothies (downstairs in the KCC shopping Mall), and how to haggle at the local market (normally aim for at least half price in the off season).  We were able to fit a lot of Sri Lankan culture into any free afternoons, including a visit to the Temple of the Tooth and seeing some Kandyan dancing.  One of the highlights of staying in Kandy was getting to see the annual Perahera, which is the biggest festival in Sri Lanka. Seeing elephants decorated with lights, more dancers and other traditional shows was amazing!

We were able to finish off our fantastic trip with a visit to the cricket.  Not my scene, but if you haven’t gained at least a basic grasp of Sri Lanka’s national sport by the time you’ve finished, you haven’t spoken to enough locals!  I’m still not converted, but an afternoon out with our tuk tuk drivers and other friends we made in the hospital was a great way to round off our time there.
I really enjoyed my 6 weeks in Sri Lanka with Work the World; the country was amazing, the locals welcoming, the other students there have become good friends, and the staff are so friendly, supportive and pro-active.  The hospital experience was invaluable, and the time outside of the hospital was just as memorable.

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