Medicine & Healthcare in Jamaica by Pam Bailey
I am currently a medical student and I have always wanted to do an international rotation. Someone passed along the name of Projects Abroad and I soon got on their website. There’s a phenomenal array of places you can go and I ended up selecting Jamaica because of an interest in infectious diseases, which abound in the Caribbean.
There were times when I felt like my experience in Jamaica was completely indescribable, it was so broad. By travelling with Projects Abroad, I got to experience Jamaica in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. I lived with a host family, eating the native Jamaican foods and trying fruits and vegetables I have never been exposed to before. I attended classes on patois and Reggae dance. I taught health outreach classes to both senior citizens and young school children.
I travelled throughout the island on the weekends, getting to see some of the most glorious sights that Jamaica could offer. I rode the route taxis, squeezed in the back of a sedan with three other adults. My iPhone was reduced to being used as a camera. I was blessed to have hot water, warmed by a solar panel on the roof; many of my peers didn’t have that.
It was a step back to a different time; a developing country with the merest touches of the developed world in the resorts. A different concept of time also, as you wait for the bus to be completely full before departing - it could be two minutes or two hours.
It was a different type of life experience for me - being conspicuously white in a town where the only other white people are the other Projects Abroad volunteers. Everyone knows you’re an outsider and they’re all so friendly, just wanting to know where you’re from and to talk to you.
Arriving in Jamaica
From the minute I stepped into the Montego Bay airport, I knew I was in for something different. I emerged to embark on a three hour drive to Mandeville on the worst roads I’ve ever experienced—massive potholes, no signage, switchbacks without warning and all of this done on the wrong side of the road.
On my first day of work, I was reminded of the rules inherent in the hospitals - no shoulder and knees exposed for women. The hospital was something new and different and sometimes shocking every single day. Every day brought some new experience. Luckily, the Projects Abroad staff and other volunteers are there to help you through.
My Medicine Project
The experiences in the hospital I will carry with me forever. The hospitals themselves are eye-opening in their differences from the US hospitals I’m used to. Mostly, it’s the public nature of basically everything that goes on in the hospital.
Then there’s the clinic experience - every morning I walked in through the waiting hordes, forcing myself to see this daily to sear it into my memory. I also saw diseases that I never hope to see again, and it’s heart-breaking to consider how frequently I diagnosed someone with a condition that will kill them in a matter of months.
Also to challenge a budding physician was the lack of technology. You forget how reliant we’ve all become on it in the developed world. There were not computers anywhere in the hospital except the registration desk and they were old, clunky computers.
The x-rays are all actual films and held up to the light streaming through the windows. Only paper charts, of course; one resident didn’t believe me when I said that every hospital in America has electronic records. I was often asked how things would be done in the States and people thought I was telling fairy tales.
I would go home from the hospital often tired, sweaty, and disheartened by what I had seen that day. Sometimes I would be energized by the lectures or procedures I’d gotten to do, but too often I was discouraged by the lack of resources.
My Jamaican Host Family
Luckily, I came home to a lovely host family. I got along exceptionally well with my host mum. She cooked traditional Jamaican meals, and I enjoyed learning how to make them. I was always willing to try the different fruits they grow on trees around the house and while I didn’t like them all, I was willing to try!
My host dad would show me the native fruits and slice me off bits of them to try. I also had two other Projects Abroad volunteers staying in the house with us; we talked often about our projects and what we were learning from them. We shared a camaraderie which all volunteers share; the experience of volunteering in Jamaica bonded us all together.
There are also lots of opportunities to connect with other volunteers, both on your project and the other general volunteers in Jamaica. They’re the people you’re travelling out on the weekend with, and it is fun to get to know people from all over the world.
The things you have the opportunity to enjoy in Jamaica in your free time are incredible - swimming with dolphins, snorkelling and looking for pirate treasure among the reefs in Negril, or simply enjoying the beauty of the Blue Mountains. This island nation has lots of treasures to enjoy on your weekends.
I was asked what advice I would give to future volunteers and it is this: embrace your experience. Respect your host family and try the foods they give you. Work hard at your placement and be willing to do anything. Travel on the weekends and spend time with Jamaicans, listening to what they have to say. Really experience it - the potholed roads and crazy drivers, the saltfish and ackee national dish, the laid back attitude towards time, and being called ‘whitey’ every single day.
The Jamaicans don’t say ‘enjoy’ because the beginning of the word implies the end, they say ‘full joy’. That is what I know I experienced and I am so happy I went.