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African children could not believe we were real

Daniela, a student of the Faculty of Medicine, helped as a volunteer in Ghana thanks to a new grant programme.

Daniela (right) had never previously encountered some of the local diseases.

Daniela Poliaková, a student of the Faculty of Medicine, visited Ghana during the autumn. However, she did not only go in search of adventure: what brought her to Equatorial Africa was her desire to help others. She participated in a mission organized by Operation Mobilisation (OM), an international Christian organisation that sends missions to various countries. Afterwards, she also received financial support from the new grant programme that supports humanitarian activities.

“They were looking primarily for medical students. I learned about the organisation last year, but only gathered the courage to take the opportunity this year,” says Daniela. The four medical students from the Czech Republic were joined by local medical students, nurses, pharmacists and other personnel. After arriving to Accra, the capital of Ghana, they headed north to provide medical care to local people in rural areas. The whole group consisted of about forty members. For a week, they would stay in one village, either in missionary buildings or in local homes.

Smaller groups of medical students and healthcare workers would then visit surrounding villages from this base. “Altogether, we spent three weeks in Ghana, and travelling around took us one week, so for two weeks we practically worked as doctors,” explains Daniela. Even though she received a lot of preliminary information about the mission, there were many things that caught her by surprise. “We learned about treatments and solutions on the go. We often didn’t have sufficient knowledge to deal with local issues,” she says. Among the diseases most often encountered by the students were malaria, respiratory diseases, various inflammations, diarrhoea and also parasites. They even had to deal with tuberculosis and whooping cough and often treated inflamed wounds and burns in children.

Daniela describes her experience from the field: “Common African health problems such as parasites or sleeping sickness were completely new for me and my other Czech colleagues. We had to ask our colleagues from Ghana for advice on what to do. Otherwise, everyone took care of their own patients, but, of course, we always helped each other when someone wasn’t sure how to proceed.” In the villages, they treated their patients in unused classrooms, but occasionally also under trees in open-air markets.

From among the many exotic diseases she encountered in Ghana, Daniela was most afraid of malaria: “We received the compulsory vaccination against yellow fever and we were also vaccinated against typhoid fever, meningitis and hepatitis A. We were also taking antimalarials, but they don’t offer absolute protection and two of our colleagues really did get malaria. Fortunately, they only had mild symptoms thanks to the antimalarial medication.” Their fear of malaria and other parasites was heightened by the presence of large numbers of mosquitoes and small biting flies.

First meeting with white people
The volunteers spent their time in local villages. “As whites, we were quite an attraction. Some of the adults had seen white people before, but the children always gathered around and watched us. They looked really surprised and some of them tried to touch as, as if they could not believe we were real,” says Daniela with a smile.

As they were students of medicine, the locals trusted them and Daniela says they were very grateful. There are no hospitals or doctors’ surgeries in the poor villages of northern Ghana; the cities are too far for the locals and the journey is prohibitively expensive. Daniela and her colleagues gained first-hand experience with the difficulties posed by local roads. They had originally planned to go for a short trip at the end of their stay, but their plans did not work out. “We were there towards the end of the monsoon season and there were still occasional heavy downpours of rain. The local roads were bad and on our way back our bus got stuck several times; in the end, we were delayed by several days.

It is obvious that the students had no lack of exotic experiences, including culinary adventures. Besides healthcare workers, there were also various assistants in the volunteer group including cooks who prepared local dishes. “The meals were really hot and I wasn’t very happy about that. They often eat rice and yams, which is something like our potatoes,” says Daniela, who also tried the local version of vegetable stew with peppers and tomatoes. However, her favourite treat were the sweet and juicy local fruits.

As Daniela worked with the missionary organisation as a volunteer, she paid her travel expenses herself. “It was only after I got back that a friend told me about the new Masaryk University grant programme for students who provide aid in humanitarian disasters. I believe it’s a very good thing,” says Daniela, who is one of the first eight students to receive support from the fund.

She and her colleague from the Faculty of Medicine each paid close to forty thousand crowns for their healthcare mission to Ghana and they each received about a quarter of that amount from the university. “It certainly helped, I didn’t even expect that we would get that much,” she says.

The mission to Ghana was Daniela’s first healthcare-related volunteer experience and it taught her a lot. “I would recommend it to anyone, but I understand it’s an adventure that might not be attractive for everybody,” she says. The trip to Africa was a dream come true for Daniela, who says she might go for another mission in the future. However, she remains interested in short-term stays rather than missions that last several years.

As she says, medicine is her hobby. “I always found it fascinating – I wanted to know how everything in the human body worked, but I was surprised how difficult the first years at university were. Now I am happy that I didn't give up and went on with my studies.”

Despite her African volunteer experience, travel medicine is not the specialisation of her dreams. “For me, it has always been surgery. I love working with my hands and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says, adding that she would like to become a plastic surgeon in the future.