International Medical Volunteering
Experiences in Ghana from a naturopathic medical student
Volunteering abroad in a medical setting can be an enriching experience for a medical student, particularly in underserved communities. In North America, we have access to hospital care, diagnostic imaging, and laboratory testing on a fairly regular basis. However, some countries do not have this luxury. As naturopathic medical students wishing to provide high-quality care to our patients as future physicians, it is important that we push ourselves outside our comfort zone and expose ourselves to experiences like these to improve our critical thinking skills as a diagnostic clinician. And this is exactly why I chose to volunteer abroad in Ghana in September, providing medical care to those in Kasoa, outside the city of Accra.
Before I tell you about about my personal experience in Ghana, let me explain how I found out about this opportunity. I didn’t go with a group of students or doctors (however, I did have one classmate join me); Bastyr University did not organize this trip; no one even told me how to make it possible. Rather, I spent many hours doing research online to find study abroad programs that involved hands-on medical volunteering—looking directly at programs’ websites, reading blogs from people who did similar programs, and scanning reviews from students across the globe. There are a lot of study abroad programs out there that are outrageously expensive and this made me wonder how much of the costs actually ended up on the ground to the country where the program takes place. Definitely keep this in mind when doing your research to find the right study abroad program for you. Based on my interests and budget, I found Global Crossroads to be a good fit for me, especially because of the cost, and the reviews online weren’t too bad.
For those who need a brief review in African geography, Ghana is in West Africa, on what has historically been called the Gold Coast. Accra is the Capitol of Ghana and has a population of over 1.5 million residents. When I first arrived, in all honesty—I had anxiety and found it difficult to sleep for a couple of days. The town of Kasoa is relatively poor and the roads are dusty with garbage everywhere because of no waste removal services. I definitely stuck out while walking in the streets. People hissed at me, trying to get my attention so I’d buy something from them on the street, and residents continually shouted “White man!” or “Oburoni!” These things, however, were not meant in a negative way whatsoever. After 2 or 3 days, I became accustomed to the lifestyle and found the Ghanaian people to be extremely friendly.
I stayed with a host family that did not have many resources, but the love I received from this family was more than I could have asked for. Not to mention, the local food dishes – banku, fufu, kenkey, and basic rice and stew were delicious (but this took some adjustment as well). Most days after breakfast, we took public transportation to work. My days were split between working at a maternity clinic and a general outpatient clinic. I performed antenatal check-ups during pregnancy, physical exams, and orthopedic tests, blood draws and IVs, and immunizations, among others. What I loved, even more, is that the physicians and nurses on site gave me permission to do spinal manipulations, soft tissue massage, and…homeopathy! I recall times where I gave patients a homeopathic remedy in office and their demeanor and symptoms improved within a few minutes—it was incredible!
I learned a lot from my experience in Ghana and I want to encourage other naturopathic medical students to seek out opportunities like this, even outside of Natural Doctors International (NDI) and Naturopaths Without Borders (NWB). The possibilities literally are endless. Don’t ever be afraid to think outside of the box! Trust me, it will be worth it.
About the Author:
Steven LaBrecque, MPH
INTERNATIONAL CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICER, BASTYR UNIVERSITY KENMORE
Steven is a third-year medical student at Bastyr University in Seattle. He graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in Neuroscience and Psychology and went on to receive his Master of Public Health degree from Michigan State University. He is Chief Administrative Officer for NMSA International, previously Legislative Chair for the Bastyr Washington NMSA Chapter, and is currently working as an intern for the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC) to create a national multidisciplinary Student Alliance for the organization. He is passionate about healthcare policy and community health and particularly likes learning physical medicine treatments of chronic pain and homeopathy for neurological developmental disorders in children. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, spending time with friends, and attending festivals in the Pacific Northwest.