Medicine & Healthcare in Jamaica by Alexi Child
I am from the United States, I graduated with a BS in Movement Science, and was also on the Pre-Health track for eventually attending Physician Assistant graduate school. I had completed numerous hours shadowing and observing physicians and nurses in a wide variety of settings. I was beyond ecstatic to be volunteering in Jamaica for three whole weeks.
Volunteering in Jamaica
I thoroughly enjoyed my time working in the rural medical clinic I was stationed at for the three week duration. While volunteering there, I was able to observe nurses, midwives, doctors and even a nutritionist work with the local people. The clinic’s activity was largely dependent on when the travelling doctors were visiting their specific. Monday and Tuesdays were days when at least one doctor was always there; Wednesdays were when the midwives generally worked; and Thursdays and Fridays were usually only the permanently staffed nurses or an out-of-town specialist would possibly be scheduled to work, as well.
Learning this weekly agenda took some getting used to, since I was unfamiliar with such a system, despite my numerous hours of shadowing and observation in the US. I also noticed that certain days would be centred around specific cases. For example, Mondays and Tuesdays were “chronic days” (i.e. hypertension and diabetes), and also Tuesdays along with Wednesdays were “baby days” (for pregnant women and infants). After about a week of working at the medical clinic, I was able to have more direct patient contact experiences due to becoming more familiar with the system and the medical staff being confident in my abilities.
Instead of only observing throughout the day, I was able to escort patients from one appointment to the next, take heights and weights and calculate BMIs, and even started to help out with some of the front office work checking-in the patients. By the second week, I was able to take patient’s blood pressure, test their blood-glucose levels, and help with the filing and retrieval of patient case files in the secretary/admissions office. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the patients and learning more about their lives and the Jamaican culture in general.
Observing the various doctor-patient interactions also provided me with an educational avenue; I could ask the doctor about a particular situation once the patient had left, and learn more about that case and how the doctor made his/her evaluations of the case. The doctors were very informative and did their best to answer my many questions. The nurses were also extremely helpful with expanding my knowledge base, as they would talk me through their processes of wound care and bandaging as they were working with the patients. Using a non-automated blood pressure machine was something I had not practiced in several years, and the head nurse took it upon herself to make me as proficient as possible at taking blood pressures.
Even the midwife, who was incredibly busy with the many patients she had to see in a day, offered for me to go on house-call visits to pregnant women as well as newly born babies. I will never forget traversing over boulders and climbing down steep, rocky hills to get to some of the houses with these families. I couldn’t believe that women who were 8 and 9 months pregnant had been climbing this trail right up until they gave birth. The midwife let me take the new-borns’ heart rates and blood pressures, too, which is performed slightly differently on an infant. I greatly appreciated all of the time and effort each staff member dedicated to make my time with the clinic enjoyable and impactful.
My host family
As for living situation, I had the best host family. They made me feel at home and did everything they could to be as accommodating as possible. I was also living with one other volunteer for most of the time. We quickly became friends and explored much of Jamaica together, usually with a group of around six to twelve people. As much as I enjoyed adventuring around Jamaica with my new friends, I also really did look forward to spending time with my host family at night during dinner or briefly in the morning over breakfast.
They taught me so many Jamaican customs and introduced me to their extended family, and many nights we would all gather around the TV in their living room and watch the sports channels until someone fell asleep. I also loved that they had a dog I could play with and would greet me every time I came home from work. My host mom even wrote me later saying she could tell the dog was missing me shortly after I left Jamaica for the States!
I think one of the memories I will hold onto for many years to come is when the Projects Abroad medical volunteers all worked together at an off-site location. We were working with a local health group to help run a temporary health clinic. At the start of the day, various groups presented on public health issues and general safety reminders. By the afternoon, we had divided ourselves into various stations—check-in and patient history, blood pressure and heart rate, blood-glucose testing, and height and weight recordings for children.
I was in charge of the check-in and patient history, and by the end of the day we had seen over 80 people. This was during my third week in Jamaica, so luckily my ear was fairly trained to the Jamaican accents and discerning some of the Patois (however, I did have a Projects Abroad staff member help me with some of the patients I couldn’t understand clearly). I remember talking with the people and learning of their ailments and pains, some of which could be treated by the doctor, but many were not easy fixes. There was a little boy who was very small for his age who loved coming over to our desk and playing with our feet under the table. During breaks I played with the boy and other children, and talked to the boy’s mother a fair amount.
Not only did I get to learn so much about their lives, but in this moment I was also able to relax and have fun during that gorgeous Jamaican day with some of the locals, and interact as peers rather than medical volunteers. It was harder than I expected to leave the medical clinic I had worked at, as well was my host family and international friends I made during my time there. I knew I was going to miss not only the breath taking Jamaican sunsets and utopian beaches, but also the people I had worked so closely with and learned to care so much for over those short three weeks. I feel like my experience was definitely worthwhile, and I hope I was able to give back and have a positive impact on the community that gave me so much.