Medicine & Healthcare in Jamaica by Jonathon Sheen
If I was to sum up my experience in Jamaica in one word it would simply be WOW!
After not getting through my interviews to study graduate medicine first time, I decided to apply again but needed something special for my applications, so I thought what better way than to go and get some experience abroad. After searching through a few volunteering websites, I decided on Projects Abroad as they seemed to offer the best medical-based opportunities.
Jamaica immediately stood out and after a bit more research I was hooked and knew I had to go. I got in touch with Projects Abroad who answered all my questions, and within weeks everything (placement, host family, flights, insurance) was sorted and I was on a plane to Jamaica.
Arriving in Jamaica
On my first day, I was thrown straight into Projects Abroad life with a cultural trip to Treasure Beach and the Black River Safari, and for a jetlagged man with a fear of crocodiles and snakes it was certainly an experience; as much I was looking forward to throwing myself into everything on offer, there was no way I was throwing myself into that water!
It was my first time meeting the staff and other volunteers and I couldn’t have felt more welcome. The staff were all brilliant during my time there, helping with any problems we had and just making everything that much better. They were all so enthusiastic about what they do and their passion rubs off on all the volunteers. They were always happy to see us, got on so well with all the volunteers, and made every weekly meeting or activity interesting.
My Medical placement
My placement, like most pre-med volunteers in Jamaica, was at Percy Junor Hospital in Spalding. It is roughly 25-30 minutes from Mandeville, with taxis easy to find by just following the cries of ‘Spalding! Spalding! Spalding taxi!’
The hospital is Type C, offering basic medical and surgical care to patients, and has lots of different areas you can experience: the Out Patient Department (OPD), the Labs, and Male and Female Medical and Surgical, and Paediatric Wards.
During the placement you arrange with the other volunteers to rotate between the departments to ensure you all experience everything. I spent my first few and last couple of weeks in the OPD, and the best way I can describe it is as a cross between a GP and in A&E, with patients ranging from those coming for simple prescriptions to more serious diseases, such as cancer & COPD. The doctors allow you to get as involved as you want in the department, and I saw so much more than I would be allowed to experience at home. I got to sit in on all examinations, assist in suturing (sewing wounds), take blood, help diagnose illnesses, attend clinics and pronounce people dead.
The rest of my time at the hospital was spent in the neighbouring Male Medical and Surgical Wards. The most interesting part of the days were the ward rounds with the doctor and nurses; seeing how the patients were progressing from day to day and learning more about the various diseases common to Jamaica.
The wards are a great place to get to know the patients and strike up friendships with them; some of whom stayed for the entirety of my placement. I have fond memories of one of the patients who was always hungry and always trying to trick different nurses to bringing him 5 breakfasts a day. Although it never worked he kept me and the other volunteer entertained.
I have to say as well that the doctors and nurses were brilliant during my stay. All the doctors took time out to teach me about the diseases they were seeing to, teach more about the Jamaican healthcare system, answer any questions, and let me get some real hands on experience. It was also brilliant to see that, whilst always staying professional, the relaxed style of Jamaica even makes its way into medicine.
The doctors make you and the patients feel welcome, having a laugh with you and them, and involving you in discussions and banter with the other doctors and nurses. For example, I was introduced to the ‘Nobody Can Cross It’ video (YouTube it if you haven’t seen it) by one of the doctors during my first days at hospital, and within 5 minutes of seeing it, the doctor and the patient he was seeing at the time were both up on their feet and teaching me the dance that was made up for the song!
My host family
My host family was made up of Maxine (my host mother), Lenroy (my host father) and their two children Aaron (10) and Aprel (2), and I couldn’t have wished for a better family to stay with! The family made me and the other volunteers I stayed with feel like a part of the family. Maxine and Lenroy were both always happy to see us and always had time for us, despite being out working all day. The food they cooked was always amazing, particularly Maxine’s special sauce for the chicken.
A mention for the kids as well: Aaron an absolute menace with his new found love of kung-fu after watching the Karate Kid, but so brilliant to come home to after a morning of hard work, as his excitement and energy means you can’t not love playing football (he’s now a converted Man United fan) or chilling with him. Aprel is the cutest little kid you will ever meet, firstly calling me mummy, followed by daddy, before settling on uncle. Even after all our hours at reggae dance class, she showed us up on her dance floor every morning!
I also got to meet a few of the extended family while I was there; unfortunately it was straight after coming back from the ATI festival. After a weekend away I was looking forward to some rest before a trip to Ocho Rios to climb Dunns River Falls the next day. However, I came back to a house full of little cousins who never left my side once I stepped through the door, not that I am complaining.
Living in Mandeville
What a place to live! Everything about the town was so vibrant but also laid back and chilled, and I miss it now as a sit in cold Bolton looking out of the window at the grey skies, with the rain lashing down and the wind trying to blow everything over... If only I could grab some fried chicken at the Food Court, a Juici Patty, or some jerk chicken from the Rasta. If only I could be baking out in the sun in the garden or playing pool at Mystics. If only I could be at the Vineyard or the Great House with a cool Pepsi. Everything about Mandeville I miss, and every day I wish I could be back there.
Travelling in Jamaica
One of the best parts of the trip was getting to travel all over Jamaica with the other volunteers at the weekends. I got to experience Jamaica in all sorts of ways, and being able to see the whole country just makes you fall in love with it even more. In my first few days I was straight off to Kingston, Lime Cay and Bull Bay, the highlight was visiting the Bob Marley museum, and not even a painful foot full of sea urchins could dampen that first weekend.
I visited Montego Bay twice with the stunning glistening waters. I enjoyed more cultured trips to see the Maroons in Accompong and a visit to YS Falls, a hike up the Blue Mountains to see the breath-taking sunrise, a raft down the Rio Grande and relaxing in the beautiful coves at Port Antonio. I also spent three weekends in my favourite destination of Negril, a place which has everything. We stayed at Roots Bamboo, which couldn’t have got much better, with the accommodation right on the beach.
The days were spent relaxing by the sea and baking in the sun on the most amazing beach you will find, with the craft market right next door perfect for souvenirs, and the world famous Rick’s Cafe just down the road for a spot of cliff jumping. The nights were started by a dinner of jerk chicken pasta (amazing!), and then spent either relaxing. Negril also hosts the massive ATI festival every year, attracting hundreds of reggae and dancehall lovers from everywhere for a weekend of dancing. If you are in Jamaica when it’s happening, you really don’t want to miss it, as it was one of my best experiences over there, and I’m still listening to the music now.
I don’t quite know how to sum up my time in Jamaica. All I can really say is that it’s the best thing I’ve done so far in my life. You will meet wonderful people with your host family and the staff at Projects Abroad and your placement. You will make friends for life with the other volunteers, particularly your housemates and with the Jamaicans that you see day-in, day-out. You will gain invaluable experience at your placement and visit some of the most amazing places in the world. The country is simply special; the only problem is you will never want to leave!
If you are thinking about volunteering in Jamaica, stop thinking and just book it; you won’t regret it for one second.