After graduating from medical school in 2011 I began medical higher training and, like many other doctors, found it in equal measures rewarding and challenging. I also felt that I needed some time out to reflect before making the next big decision of my life – which specialty should I pursue?
In the summer of 2015 I took a year out and decided that I wanted to travel whilst still carrying out my duties as a doctor, and have some adventure along the way, off the beaten track. After completing an expedition medicine course, which gave me the skills I needed to treat people in a remote pre-hospital setting, I contacted a number of expedition companies.
I discovered that they required varying degrees of non-medical expedition experience, such as high altitude experience and a PADI licence, and have different financial arrangements – with some expecting medics to pay their own way plus providing the medical kit, which can prove very costly.
Eventually I signed up with a conservation organisation called Operation Wallacea (Opwall), who reimbursed me £350 for flights as well as providing the medical kit, accommodation and food during the expedition.
Opwall undertakes conservation research in 10 remote locations worldwide for several months over the summer, taking school and university students from all over Europe and North America to help with data collection – providing them with field research experience in return.
Since Opwall began its expeditions, the organisation has identified 31 new species and published over 270 articles in peer-reviewed journals.
I was invited to join one of their July 2016 expeditions to a biosphere reserve in Southern Mexico. A few weeks before I left, a training day provided an opportunity to meet other medics going on an Opwall expedition for the first time and also to speak to those who had been previously.
It was encouraging to see that for many, their first experience had not been their last! The session highlighted what would be expected of a volunteer medic and the most likely problems encountered.
Reality began to set in; I was nervous and very excited but still had a lot to organise – flights, medical indemnity and accommodation before the expedition started, kit and logistics of travel once there. I also began to realise that there would be no mod cons, no internet or mobile phone connection and no electricity. How would I manage without a hot shower and a hairdryer for a fortnight?
Finally, because I was to stay in a biosphere reserve, I had to invest in biodegradable products.
July came and I flew to Cancun, treating myself to one last night of civilisation in a four-star hotel, before meeting up with the Opwall staff members and students. After brief introductions, we made the 10-hour journey by coach to the biosphere reserve. There were four camps within the reserve, each housing between 20 and 50 people sleeping under canvas.
On arrival at my designated camp, there was time to familiarise myself with my amazing new surroundings and investigate the medical supplies available.
Unfortunately, the one and only medical bag had not been kept fully stocked, so my first task was to perform an inventory which took about two hours – not exactly what I wanted after an exhausting journey! Once complete I thought I would be able to relax, but how wrong I was; the requests for advice started almost immediately.
Camp set-up in remote Southern Mexico
Photo credit: Sarah Whiteley
In two weeks I treated a variety of ailments. Most were minor and a couple could have been addressed before the expedition commenced, such as ingrowing toenails. There were also plenty of cases of sunburn, insect bites, cellulitis, gastroenteritis and dehydration, but I also encountered more severe conditions such as collapse, a flare of inflammatory bowel disease, shortness of breath, a snake bite and an acute kidney injury with sepsis.
The patient with an acute kidney only identified she had not passed urine for over 24 hours, when she realised she hadn't smelt the stench from the toilet that day and she required intravenous fluids, which was quite an experience in the jungle setting.
Free time was spent going out with the researchers, helping to collect data for different projects. I was fortunate to see some wonderful birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. I also had the opportunity to visit an ancient Mayan city within the biosphere reserve, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The ruins were extraordinary, with spectacular views from the top.
I did find some aspects of the trip challenging. It was tiring being on call 24/7 with many of the issues being so minor. I also felt particularly uncomfortable when a senior staff member, who resided in Mexico, sought my help for a condition which pre-dated the expedition and used a course of antibiotics which should have been for the camp.
Generally, however, it was a rewarding experience and I would certainly recommend it to anyone wanting to take some time out from training and to travel – as long as they are prepared to treat a wide variety of conditions, mostly very minor. It definitely will not be a holiday, but something to reflect upon – and great for the CV!
Dr Sarah Whiteley
Graduating from Cardiff University in 2011, Sarah completed her foundation training in North Wales and continued her medical training in South Wales. She took a break from formal training in 2016 to pursue her love of travelling and to undertake a series of specialty professional roles in order to give her the opportunity to really consider her next career move. The break confirmed Sarah’s original career plan to become a nephrologist and she is now a registrar in the specialty.
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