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Madeline McDonald - Medicine in Tanzania

Working at the medicine project

Traveling to Tanzania to become a medical volunteer at Mwananyamala Hospital was the most terrifying, life-changing, yet rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my twenty-two years of life. As a small-town Minnesota farm girl, aspiring to become a rural family physician, I booked my Tanzanian trip with absolutely no idea what I would be getting myself into. I knew I needed more volunteer experience and I’ve always loved to travel, so I figured I’d be able to accomplish both by doing an internship abroad. Little did I know what Africa had to offer!

My Medicine Placement in Tanzania

As a pre-medicine student serving in Dar es Salaam for five weeks, I had the opportunity to rotate throughout the hospital and observe and assist in various wards of Mwananyamala, including minor and major theater, labor and delivery, pediatrics and neonatal, and internal medicine.

I started my rotations in the minor theater, and I can honestly say that after my first few days of watching wounds being cleaned and minor operations being performed, I had some serious doubts about my ability to handle the severity of the injuries I saw. Fortunately, the staff in the minor theater was understanding and didn’t seem to mind that I needed to take more water breaks than what was considered “normal.” Thankfully, I worked through my initial squeamishness and was able to end my time in the minor theater by cleaning and dressing a wound of a three year old boy by myself.

My time in the major theater allowed me to watch and ask questions during major surgeries such as cesarean sections, amputations, hernia repairs, and many more. The surgeons and nurses were willing and able to answer questions as long as I made an effort to listen and understand. I had never witnessed such major surgeries before, and I feel like my time spent in major theater was priceless.

Spending time in the labor and delivery ward at Mwananyamala was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I had the chance to assist with multiple births; it’s an indescribable feeling to be handed a child seconds after it enters the world. It’s also unbelievably terrifying to know that you’re holding the newest member of the human population. I was able to work alongside another volunteer who happened to be a midwife from Japan, and she walked me through the process of checking the newborn babies for abnormalities and documenting all the necessary measurements and observations. It’s certainly safe to say there was never a dull moment in the labor and delivery ward.

Medicine project in Tanzania

Perhaps my favorite rotation of my entire trip was my pediatrics and neonatal rotation. I’ve always loved children, and being able to see how the doctors and nurses treated their illnesses was truly special. One volunteer in particular took me under his wing and allowed me to assist with treating each child. I asked a ton of questions and he answered each one thoroughly. Allowing myself to get out of my comfort zone, and trying things I’ve never done before, really made my experience memorable.

In the internal medicine ward, I learned all about infectious diseases affecting Tanzanians every day including symptoms, treatments, and other facts about those common illnesses. Again, I was able to observe and assist alongside interns and nurses as they diagnosed and treated diseases including malaria, tuberculosis, and pneumonia to name a few.

My experience serving at Mwananyamala was truly a one of a kind and one that solidified my dream to become a physician. I will be forever thankful to the people I met and the relationships I gained while working as a medical volunteer in Tanzania.

My Host Family

I cannot say enough about my host family in Dar es Salaam. They made me feel right at home from the instant I stepped in the door. I had running water and even had air conditioning! Our housekeeper was extremely sweet and she prepared our meals each day, and our host parents were always making sure we were happy with our accommodation.

They had a daughter our age on break from the local university, and it was super cool to talk with her. She was very curious about life in the US and I was able to ask her questions about growing up in Africa. It turns out we both had the wrong impression about life in our respective countries. For example, she was under the assumption that all women in the US wore high heels and work in tall skyscrapers. Boy was she surprised when I told her that where I’m from there aren’t any skyscrapers!

Night out with volunteers

All in all, my host family was incredible. This was even more evident when my roommate became ill for about four or so days. My host mom sprung into power mode and drove my roommate to the hospital and even spent the night with her to make sure she was properly cared for. She was willing to buy my sick roommate anything she may need to feel better, and in addition she made sure at all times that I was feeling okay, too. It was great to know that should something happen to me, not only would the Projects Abroad staff be able to help, but my host family would too.

Projects Abroad Staff

From day one, the staff at Projects Abroad was there to help me and other volunteers adapt to our roles in Tanzania. They were supportive and offered advice as far as planning safaris and other trips, and encouraged us volunteers to do things in the city together. If any of us had issues or questions about transportation, housing, or events, someone from the Projects office was always available.

In addition, they organized outreaches to local orphanages where we played with the kids and even performed medical checkups during one excursion. The Projects Abroad staff made me feel like my experience in Tanzania was mine to make, and if there was something I wanted to do, I believe they would’ve done their best to make sure I had the best experience possible in Tanzania.

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Madeline McDonald

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