Experiences of a new grad Physio in "rural Africa"

Shortly after graduating I had the privilege to work as a Physiotherapist in the Drakensburg in what you can call “rural Africa”. Well I say privilege; it was compulsory. Termed Community Service is the South African governments initiative to getting health care services to the rural community in the country. (Try explaining “Community Service” to the bank whilst trying to open an account that year!)

It was tough, but thankfully I at least had running water, unlike some of my peers who had to fetch theirs in a bucket. I was 1000 miles away from home, there was no mobile phone reception, the nearest convenience store closed at 4pm, which happened to be the same time I knocked off from work (not really that convenient huh?!), which sucked for someone who was addicted to Coca Cola during my final year at Uni. The people spoke only Zulu (which is native to KwaZulu Natal). I grew up speaking English, Afrikaans and a smidgen of Xhosa (native to the Western and Eastern Cape), so I had to brush up on my Zulu, fast!

As the sole Physio for the hospital I was in charge of the 5 hospital wards, namely Male Medical, Female Medical, Paediatrics, Maternity and TB Wards (yes, there was a ward dedicated for TB patients!). I also ran the entire outpatient department all whilst squeezing in twice-weekly visits to the 5 satellite clinics that fell under the jurisdiction of the hospital. Think clay huts on a dusty gravel road whilst waiting for about one hundred cows to move out of your way! The treatment was basic, however my patients couldn’t be more grateful for the service I provided them. Who would’ve thought I would be praised, be given elaborate homemade, beaded gifts and met with ear-to-ear grins for teaching my old Gogos (Zulu for Granny’s) to put a towel soaked in hot water over their arthritic knees for pain relief. There was one gentleman who I remember very vividly. He had had a stoke a few years before he presented to the OPD. During routine questioning it came to light that his kind neighbours used to fetch his houses water for him. He informed that he had an allocation of 2 litres a week. A WEEK! To drink, to cook and to clean, just 2 litres! Man, that’s the recommended daily drinking consumption for you or I alone!

During that year, my first year as a new grad Physio, I also occasionally assisted in theatre (which was only really used for amputations and C-sections) as well as childbirth. Twins I might add! On my first day into the job, much to my surprise, I was asked by a senior doctor to help insert a chest drain into a child with a traumatic haemo-pneumothorax. I casually glanced over my shoulder as surely he wasn’t speaking to me, but to my surprise (and horror) there was nobody else even faintly educated in healthcare in sight, which left me, I suppose, as the most qualified assistant with my two available hands that happened to be doing nothing vaguely as useful at the time.


At the end of my final year of Uni when I found out where I was going to be placed I was horrified. They were shipping a young city girl off to where exactly? I had to search for the place on a map as neither myself or anyone in my family had ever heard of Emmaus Hospital. When I arrived, a trailer-load of luggage and parents in tow, I was greeted by one of the outgoing Doctors who whispered softly in my ear. He said “At Emmaus you cry twice, once when you arrive and once when you leave”. He couldn’t have spoken a truer word. I look fondly on that year now. I am forever grateful for that experience and what the people of Emmaus community taught me: the simple life! I made lifelong friends and wouldn’t change that experience for anything!

Helen Van Sittert


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