Northeastern University medical students in South Africa

Every year, during their summer vacation, a group of medical students from Northeastern University in Boston, visit South Africa – making a difference in the lives of many here who can’t afford or don’t have access to medical healthcare.

One of the highlights in an action-packed and insightful program is the time spent with a non-profit community outreach organization run by the students of the University of Cape Town. SHAWCO (Student’s Health and Welfare Organisation) was started in 1943 by a medical student of the university and now runs 15 health and education programs in 5 locations around Cape Town. It relies on over 100 volunteer doctors and 800 medical students to be sure that the student-run free clinics continue to be delivered.

Split into teams – 2 Americans to 1 UCT medical student – and supervised by medical doctors, the groups venture into various under-resourced Cape Town communities as dusk falls to staff mobile health clinics at night time for those who are not able to get to a doctor, clinic or hospital during the day.

By attending, assisting, learning from and participating in these health clinics, our foreign students are able to get to grips not only with primary healthcare in South Africa, but they are also exposed to communities that they would not normally interact with. On top of this, they develop friendships with local students of which a professional connection often lasts an entire career – benefiting both local and foreign students alike. And, thirdly, the health clinics benefit from additional assistance, a scarce resource that is very valued and, as such, a higher case load is able to be processed.

Very often dealing with sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, teenage pregnancies, muscular-skeletal ailments and other non specialty diseases not often seen in western world primary healthcare, the students are, at first, daunted and yet find that they come out the other side in awe of what is achieved.

“I heard of some interesting stories from others in my group… Andrea and Jackie were both present for (cases of) a dog bite, ringworm and a woman with HIV that had progressed to AIDS. The most sensitive case was observed by Melissa. She saw a ten year-old girl that had herpes. The blisters were clearly visible around her mouth and she expressed discomfort in other areas. Because she was only ten, the topic of possible abuse had to be brought up.

Although the night was tiring and at times difficult to handle, it was an experience like no other. Thankfully, throughout the night, we all got progressively more comfortable… (Our time) at SHAWCO was unlike any other and I’m sure I’m not the only one that agrees it will be one we never forget. Overall, being able to participate in the SHAWCO program was an eye-opening and rewarding experience for all of us, and we think it is safe to say that we would love going again.”
(Marissa Dunne, Northeastern University)

It is inspiring to be able to facilitate such a worthy connection between peers, to expose those from other cultures to the medical needs of ours and to assist in the provision of such a core and necessary service to marginalized communities.