Alex is an Emergency Medicine registrar with a passion for expedition medicine and global health. She volunteered for four months with the Tshemba Foundation in rural South Africa, sharing her experiences to inspire others to engage in global health opportunities and create positive change.
There is no sign to Tintswalo Hospital. In Mpumalanga, South Africa, it sits across a dusty bridge under jacaranda and mango trees. In an area flanked by safari lodges and game reserves it occupies a forgotten crevice; a forgotten hospital serving a forgotten population. And yet the patients know where to come.
Its resources are limited. The doctors are a mix of staff grades and 3rd year community service doctors doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Is the X-ray machine broken again? Have we run out of paper to triage on? Should we remove the birds from the ceiling in resus? The laryngoscope light doesn’t work – someone find the headtorch!
Amidst this chaos, Tshemba Foundation are a local charity made of wonderful and approachable people. They are doing inspiring things for a community who badly needed someone to show an interest in them. Embedded in the hospital, supporting hospital staff, and building long term relationships to empower staff, teach skills and inspire change. They are a force for good.
Volunteering with Tshemba at Tintswalo is simultaneously a privilege and a plethora of frustrations.
The hospital is shrouded in bureaucracy, and burdened by illogical regional targets, and hospital politics. Its staff lack motivation and are burnout or even border negligent at times. Yet, there’s a warmth in the walls and community, in the nurses singing, in misplaced efforts to improve with audits, in supporting each other with tertiary hospital referrals knowing it will be another no.
There’s a solidarity in the experience and knowledge that grows out of working in this environment, knowing that even if you aren’t there yet there’s so much potential to do more for patients and we mustn’t give up hope.
Though I have cried about patients, fought to save patients, and expressed anger at injustices – I walk into work each day feeling that I can make a difference with my skillset. Ironically, this has been the breath of fresh air I needed, and I hope it has benefitted my patients.
There is a saying when you leave some places “a place your feet might leave but your heart will always be” and this is true of Tintswalo and Tshemba. I look forward to returning to see what this wonderful charity, the hardworking hospital staff and the community can achieve.
My volunteer experience has allowed me to be a part of this and for that I feel privileged. I look forward to sharing this with you at the World Extreme Medicine Conference to inspire others to cross dusty bridges, to step into forgotten hospitals, to build long-lasting relationships and to care for patients and communities.