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The Life of a Raleigh Medic

The Raleigh Doctor

It was during my house officer year that I first heard about Raleigh and the thought of working abroad started to take shape in my mind. Whilst routinely checking my emails on my lunch break I received a message from one of my previously colleagues who had left the UK to go practice down under. He informed me that he now swapped his beach towel for a hammock and was now in the middle of Borneo, with the volunteering organization Raleigh. This idea instantly appealed to me. Since my elective I knew I was keen to travel again and being able to combine it with work seemed like a perfect opportunity. It seemed a world away from the stuffy, grey office which I was currently squeezed into, surrounded by piles of notes waiting for a discharge. I immediately set about planning a potential gap year (which has since turned into two) after my foundation training.

Two years later, I applied to Raleigh to go on expedition as a medic to the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. Part of the reason I chose Borneo was because after already working a year in Sydney, I was on the right side of the globe. But it was also one of those tropical, far off places which captivates your attention on some Sunday afternoon documentary. A place that I had never considered as a plausible travel destination let alone to be able to actually work there as a doctor. So once I had checked an atlas to actually see where I might be going and persuaded my parents that this was a sensible idea I set about contacting Raleigh.

Raleigh is a youth development charity that has been operating for nearly 30 years. One of its main aims is to take groups of young people to different areas around the world to work on various environmental and community projects. Each site has two project managers or PM’s who oversee the various project teams, as well as a medic who comes with a large kit of drugs, dressings and even IV fluids. There is also a medic at field base available to give any advice out to the projects and coordinate any evacuations should the need arise.

In preparation for the trip all Project Managers attend a development weekend to learn more about the expedition and what was expected of them. Unfortunately as I was working in Sydney at the time I couldn’t attend  but had instead had a lengthy interview over the phone. I was told that I could expect an array of medical problems ranging from the predictable diarrhoea and vomiting, to dealing with infected skin bites and homesickness. I was also informed that previously there had been cases of tropical diseases such as Leptospirosis. This last one slightly concerned me as having only worked in the sub tropics of Nottingham Leptospirosis was not high upon the list of presenting complaints found there. I did however attend a wilderness medicine training weekend and dug out my microbiology notes to revise the various symptoms and treatments of such infections.

After arriving in Borneo and having only a day to deal with jet lag we began our training ready for the venturers. It was the responsibility of the medics to provide some education on health and hygiene within the jungle, as well covering some basic first aid. Dealing with any medical situation once out of field base would be immediately more of a challenge both clinically and logistically. Which is why, emphasis is placed on the old adage that prevention is better than cure. Common complaints such as diarrhoea and vomiting, which can turn an expedition into a nightmare, can easily be prevented with simple and efficient hygiene precautions.  Subjects such as the importance of hand washing, ‘3-bowling’ all kitchen utensils and where to site the long drops for the call of nature were discussed. The initial awkwardness of meeting new people is immediately eliminated as discussing certain bodily functions is a key part of this session. For example, to reduce the spread of any stomach bugs, PM’s and venturers are encouraged to regularly discuss the frequency of their bowel motions, remembering to include colour and consistency. Another enjoyable practice of good healthcare taught is to encourage the teams to carry out their own regular ‘foot clinics’ on each other, looking out for any signs of fungal infection and blisters.

Once the teams had been trained and deployed to the various project sites I went back to base with the rest of the staff. The radio was switched on and now the white noise is the sound track to our working day. Despite having to evacuate two venturers out of the jungle so far there has been no major medical crisis. The patients (one with multiple mosquito bites and another with a sprained knee) were both were observed for a short time at base and have since been redeployed onto a project site.  In a week’s time it will be my turn to head out into the jungle with the sizeable medical kit on my back. It will be great to get out into the wilderness which I have spent so long preparing for. With only a limited amount of kit and knowing that it could take several hours travel to the nearest hospital it will be a unique experience that will certainly test both my clinical and organizational expertise.

Whilst squatting on long drops or munching through porridge I’m sure there will be times when I’ll consider the choices I’ve made and my friends back home on their way to becoming registrars. However, the skills gained from Raleigh, for any kind of participant, is vast, ranging from leadership and team coaching to setting up and using a radio in dense areas of rainforest. These will all be transferable to any job or situation that I come across in the future (with the exception of the latter unless switchboard are having a bad day). This once in a lifetime opportunity will, I hope, allow me to encounter a completely new set of challenges and medical cases that I would never experience back home. I would encourage anyone else weighing up the benefits of taking time out to consider their career options or just simply to travel to take the plunge and go for it. Projects such as Raleigh provide opportunities to give something back to the area and contribute to the local community and environment. Plus there’s always the added bonus of swapping a busy, overcrowded ward to interacting with one of the most biodiverse, exotic places on the planet.


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