It is trip number three to East Africa in as many years. My diet has succumbed to a delightful local bread-snack, eggs and, for my sins, that sugary brown fizzy “liquid” which is everywhere! I have lost weight, more because of my reluctance to fill myself with the local starch on offer than any physical or medical reason. I can’t really complain though – the company is vibrant and the heat is just perfect to work on that evasive Hollywood tan. However, after spending much of the past few weeks driving motorbikes through untold scenery and unprecedented quantities of dust, it is time to acknowledge that my time here is soon coming to an end. As my involvement in a field-research project in Kenya winds down, it feels natural to reflect on what will be my last tropical excursion before I return to a British University, with the inherent British weather as accompaniment, to train to become a medical doctor over the next four years.
I start off writing this piece sitting close to a gentleman I consider a friend (and I do hope the sentiment is reciprocated) under a steel shelter on a Sunday afternoon; our relationship strengthened by our time working closely together and a shared appreciation for Arsenal football club. I find myself wondering – “when will we see each other again?” I feel guilty. Guilty of playing the role I despise where people come and go with the luxury of hiding behind false promises; even if I am willing myself not to. Equally, I anticipate taking up his own promise of walking along the beautiful beaches of his hometown, Mombasa. It is a sentiment in stark contrast to three years ago, during my first experience of project-work in East Africa. Back then, I was a true Yupp and there was no possibility of denying it. I challenged myself to do away with this feeling by continuing to contribute to the project in other ways and three years later, in all fairness, I feel less clueless but importantly, no longer like a Yupp. My fleeting visits have been exchanged for more meaningful ones – personally and professionally.
Over the last three years and since that first trip to East Africa, I have said goodbye to the first city I fell in love with; Edinburgh, with more than a few tears shed. This lead on to the most captivating year of my life spent in London – at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – and Vietnam. This affirmed my decision to pursue a place at medical school. However, there were failures en route, and in more ways than might immediately spring to mind. I took jobs which left me feeling disgusted and ashamed by the private Health Screening industry, and baffled by the chaos of a budget-less company involved in clinical trials. On a more personal note, I had inadvertently strained important relationships, which I wholeheartedly regret, at the expense of pursuing my admission. I also witnessed the progression of a neurological condition in a close family member in a way I had not been savvy enough to anticipate. This final point has been especially difficult.
Each of the above trying and unique challenges had contributed heavily to a self-defeatist attitude in which I, at times, became convinced I could not possibly be considered as a future Doctor. It rubbed off on people, and it was sickening (not least for me). To my eternal gratitude, a myriad of individuals helped to challenge this mindset – family, friends, LSHTM colleagues, healthcare professionals and inspiring leaders – and without them I would not be holding the key to my dream.
Looking forward, I know the next four years will inevitably throw immense challenges and I can expect a hard time. I know I will ride waves of medical euphoria which will be immediately contrasted by feeling as useful as a Chihuahua in a pack of Wolves. The future of the NHS is not exactly certain in terms of direction (from what I gather) and when I reach the point of starting life as a junior doctor, I can expect high levels of work-related stress whilst being made to feel the lowest of the low within the healthcare hierarchy. However, right now, my experiences and principles encourage me to simply say “I don’t mind”.
The idea of immersing myself into Clinical Medicine and having the opportunity to explore some of the research interests I have generated so far, but from a clinical perspective, truly invigorates me. As wide ranging as Medicine is, it may well be that I do not end up investigating zoonotic infections or practicing in the field of Tropical Medicine. To be frank, this premise excites me and I consider it as a healthy one. Ultimately, having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than myself over a life career is something I am eternally thankful for. I am honoured to have met, heard, read and learn from many characters whom have inspired me and helped to inform my direction. As I reflect on your words of encouragement during my final few days in the African sun, I find myself hoping that I am able enough to honour them. Thank you.
*I am an MSc Medical Microbiology graduate from LSHTM. Aside from looking at bugs, I have taken on an alternative research focus, over the past 3 years, for a young NGO which operates throughout East Africa. My personal blog can be found at www.philandtropical.com