Great to hear from Dr Alice Grey who is spending 6 months with the MPCU team in Kampala (note you can click on the link above and receive regular notifications of new blogs)
'Are you sure you're ready for Africa? It's a bit different to southeast London' My consultant asked me as I headed off from my last A+E shift. He was right, although the bustling city of Kampala does remind me of home, it also couldn't be more different. My name's Alice and I am a junior doctor from the UK. I am honoured to have the privilege of volunteering with the MPCU team at Mulago Hospital for 6 months before starting the next stage of my UK training that will take me closer towards become a Palliative Care specialist. As I am almost halfway through my time here, I thought I'd share some of my reflection on this incredible experience.
Something I have been really struck by is how comfortable clinicians and patients are here at discussing spirituality. The majority of the population would describe themselves as Christians, but there are a number of other religions represented here, including 14% of the population being Muslim. I have seen the MPCU model holistic care beautifully, addressing each patient's spiritual needs just as easily as they would address physical or social needs. They appear to be just as comfortable asking questions about a patient's faith as they are asking them about their pain. I can't say that this is something that I have seen modelled anywhere near as well in the UK and I am learning so much from the team. It does help that spirituality is an integral part of the culture and community life, as evidenced by the fact that all teaching sessions and meetings will start with a verse or two from a hymn (depending on how many verses we can remember) and a prayer. It doesn't feel divisive, with a mixture of people from different faiths in our team taking it in turns to lead these times. I personally enjoy the peace and hope that this seems to bring into an environment that can feel very chaotic and sometimes hopeless.
However, I've also seen the darker side of 'religion' here. I have noticed that many patients will present in the late stages of disease. This is often because they have first been to a traditional healer healer, be it a 'herbalist', 'witch doctor' or even 'church pastor', who has dissuaded them from accepting 'western medicine' and instead offered alternative remedies or prayers in exchange for large sums of money. Being a Christian myself, I understand the importance of prayer to patients. However, I have really struggled with the scepticism of many patients to Western medicine and instead often unquestioning trust in other treatment options. The MPCU team handle these cultural difficulties with great patience. They work hard to build relationships and trust with their patients, so that the patients are then able to comfortably engage with the excellent palliative care offered by the team.
I hope I can take what I have learned from the team here and use it in my own clinical practice. Yes, spirituality is much more obvious in Uganda. ('God's plan supermarket' is my local UHT milk/banana provider here. I think you'll agree, a much more interesting name than the 'Tesco local' down my road in the UK) However, the spiritual needs of patients in the UK are just as significant as in Uganda and there's so much we can learn from the way they are approached and managed by the team here.
Now, I am no 'fashionista', but I think there's time for one more more light-hearted reflection on Uganda-style hospital attire. The concept of dignity-stripping, paper thin hospital gowns found in NHS hospitals do not exist in Uganda. This means that patients will bring their own clothes to wear in hospital...and I had not realised what a difference this would make to my perception of them. Although NHS-prescription gowns are practical (washable, quick to remove, oh so flattering) and ensure that no patient looks superior to another (the business man looks exactly the same as the homeless person who has a substance problem). Yet it means often all I see on a busy ward round is another anonymous 'patient' in front of me, rather than an individual. Here, however, due to the hospital being unable to provide gowns, patients will dress in what they would wear at home. This helps you see so much about a patient's background and social circumstances, but you also get a little glimpse of their character and, on occasion, their breakfast. Women will even go as far as to wear a 'gomesi' . I've just been surprised by how differently I subsequently see the patient. They're no longer just another 'patient'. They're the lady who looks beautiful in her blue and gold gomesi!
Thank you so much to the MPCU team and Cairdeas for not only giving me this opportunity, but helping me to feel so welcome and at home in a culture from which I have so much to learn.