Monday, 19 September 2016

Student volunteers time in Tonga

Bendigo medical student Katie Blunt will pursue her interest in global health after her first taste of volunteering overseas. Katie, in her first clinical year with Monash Rural Health Bendigo, spent two weeks on the Tongan island of Vava’u with TeamMED, a student-led organisation providing Monash University students with a chance to experience and contribute to global health. TeamMED makes health trips to Tonga, Uganda and Nepal every year.

“I have wanted to go on one of these outreach programs since my first year of medicine,” Katie said.
She joined three fourth year students, a second year student and a first year student on the island which had a 40 bed hospital for the population of 15,000 people. Tonga has an endemic of obesity and the chronic diseases that come with it,” Katie said.

“Food is a large part of the culture. People grow their own food and have wonderful feasts but there is little health promotion or understanding about what constitutes a healthy diet. There are also a number of barriers to health care for those affected by chronic disease, including lack of education, geographic isolation and financial restraints.  Our aim was to develop an awareness and appreciation for chronic disease like diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as to promote healthy living in a culturally-sensitive manner.”

Katie and the TeamMED team visited the Prince Wellington Ngu Hospital’s general, maternity and children’s wards as well as conducting free health clinics in and around the town of Neiafu. The language barrier was difficult with the older generations however Katie said younger people spoke English which made communication with patients much easier.

“At times the experience was confronting but very rewarding,” she said. “We are a fortunate country and while we hear about many global health problems, we often don’t realise that our Pacific neighbours need help too.”

Katie, from Melbourne, is relishing her year in Bendigo, spending time in the Bendigo Base Hospital as well as the Monash Rural Health clinical school. “This is the best year of my course,” she said. “I’m finally working in a hospital and getting hands-on clinical experience which is invaluable.”

Although Katie grew up in Melbourne, she lived in America for five years until her teens. Her interests “aligned” and pointed in the direction of medicine as a career. “It always felt like a natural fit and I’m loving it,” she said.

A keen water polo player, competing at a high level, she gave it up which freed up time for other interests, including global health. And while she hasn’t decided on a medical specialty yet, more volunteering is definitely on her agenda.

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