Dr Gayathri was hooked from her first foray into Nepal for medical volunteerism. “As a kid, watching doctors work in remote areas was my first inspiration to be a doctor. As a medical student, the idea of working in a rural setting, where medical assistance was needed, continued to spur me on in medical school,” she says. Fulfilling her dream in 2012, Gayathri and her husband, Dr Kumaran Rasappan, a fellow Resident in training, took two months off from their busy hospital schedules and headed to remote villages in the Khumbu region.
Their trip was not without challenges, which ranged from resources and logistics to leave applications. Read on for Gayathri’s experiences and most importantly, her tips for getting your overseas mission trips up and running!
Step 1: Loosening the purse strings (i.e. getting support from your sponsors)
Before anything can proceed, you must get buy-in from people who can help with medical supplies or costs of your project. It is important that your proposal is drafted with clear objectives and call for actions. “Essentially, ‘sell’ your project based on the company you are writing to” says Gayathri. She shares that drug companies might be interested in donating medical equipment or medication. So pitch the healthcare needs of your project in order to let your sponsors plan their giving efficiently. Non-pharmaceutical companies can also be invited on-board in terms of financial aid. Align your project’s aims with your sponsors’ corporate social responsibility goals to show how this mission trip is a good fit for their company vision.
Dr Gayathri says, “There are many people and companies out there willing to help. Just cast your nets wide. Even if you get a negative reply from the company, don’t lose hope and never give up!” Another option, she says, is to obtain medications from the host country itself. This will help reduce the transport hassle and contribute to the economy of the country.
Step 2: Cutting through red tape
A big challenge for mission trips is red tape, both at home and overseas. In Singapore, coordinating work schedules was a significant obstacle. “As a Resident, we have a limited number of leave days from a posting,” explains Gayathri. “Getting to the village of Phortse in Khumbu requires a domestic flight to Lukla in Nepal and another three days of walking,” she adds. Sharing how she got around this challenge, Gayathri said that she planned most of her longer trips during her 6-month-long postings. “Plan realistically. During my shorter postings, I visited more accessible villages to render medical help. Utilise your MOH Volunteerism Leave as well!” she says with a laugh.
Do some long-term preparation as well. As red tape in foreign countries can delay the transportation of essential medication and equipment, cultivate reliable contacts who can advise on the best processes. “Stay on friendly terms with the embassy for support letters and even staff at the airport of the host country. Their help can go a long way toward paving your path,” Gayathri recommends.
Step 3: Communicate, communicate, communicate
Lively interaction between volunteers and hosts are central to a successful and sustainable project. The objectives of your mission trip should be in line with the community you are treating. Gayathri recounts, “Many times, the Nepalese village heads may think that foreign doctors bringing a medical mission to them or prescribing ‘foreign’ medicine is good enough help. But this only cures the immediate healthcare issues and does not address the more deeply rooted challenges.”
An adequate assessment of health needs must be done, with the results and objectives discussed and agreed upon by both parties. This strategy has proven useful, says Gayathri. She adds, “Over time, as we started exploring the health and social state of the villagers holistically (in terms of their roles in the community, their traditional diets, culture and belief systems), we began to better understand their needs.” Besides providing medical and public education services to the villagers, Gayathri also trains local healthcare givers so that they continue providing comprehensive support after the mission trip is over. “We keep in touch with the Nepalese healthcare workers we work with via email and Facebook. This keeps the support channels open!”
Another important thing to note is also the difference in approach. A mission trip is not about imposing a familiar system upon a community that might have different ways of doing things. Gayathri says, “We may learn and do things in a certain way in Singapore. This may not work for the communities. We need to think of solutions that are sustainable and customised for them.”
Step 4: Systematic match-making
A natural progression of communication is growth. This translates to more hands needed on deck and more vigorous calls for volunteers. Gayathri shares that she regularly calls out for doctors and allied healthcare professionals who are interested to volunteer their expertise. In fact, she is in the midst of creating a network of likeminded people to join her on her mission trips. A wider pool of medical professionals means that the specific needs of a community can be met more closely.
“The rewarding part comes from understanding what the community needs are and matching it with volunteer healthcare workers who can best meet these needs. Each village is different, based on its population, accessibility and facilities. All these pushed me to think more about systems and how they can make a bigger impact. If we want to treat the majority, having a process would be a good start,” Gayathri says. Building this system with future doctors is important, which is why Gayathri also suggests reaching out to medical students. She helps medical students plan projects in Nepal and involves them in the ground work there, as part of the LKC Medical School Overseas Community Involvement Project. This year, the students will be organising and coordinating an Ophthalmology medical camp in Nepal, under Gayathri and her husband’s supervision. Gayathri says, “Although I’m unable to physically join the trip this year due to my exit exams, I want to show our future generations that volunteerism is not just about offering clinical services for a certain amount of time, in a certain location. They are capable of tackling problems at its roots and plan for better standard operating procedures in these communities as well.”
Step 5: Reflections (How to make things bigger and better!)
A successful mission trip does not have to be an end to your volunteerism quota for the year. Each trip will open your eyes to the sustainable potential for a larger-scale project to benefit more communities. Learn, adapt and analyse every project so that you can improve for the next round. Gayathri recounts that it was challenging at first to practise in a resource-poor setting with nothing but her clinical acumen. However with each successive mission trip, she realised that she was going back to the basics and improvising to handle the situation outfield. With more experience and contacts, she “realised how small we are and saw that we are all part of a much bigger picture.”
Gayathri firmly believes that the way forward is through collaboration and creating sustainable change through understanding the community. “I hope to create a portal, where Singapore healthcare professionals can link up. Through shared experiences of their own volunteerism work, information on specific needs can be matched with the people who can help. Replication of work being done can also be prevented so that more meaningful help is given.” Most importantly, Gayathri says, “With technology and the widespread use of the Internet and online social media platforms, we may even be able to create new solutions to old problems.”
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