Making positive impact while volunteering

As a medical student or a medical professional, you may be wondering about whether you are making a positive impact on the community that you visit?  Many of our students and volunteers are quite humble and do not notice the extent of their personal contribution or understand the huge benefit of what they do. Some people question the value of medical missions and ‘voluntourism’; however, the benefits emerge on many fronts.

First and foremost, there are warm smiles and words of gratitude received from patients. Volunteers also share their knowledge, skills and experience with the local staff, and the tangible donations of medical supplies and equipment are frequently made to continue the good work. Most importantly, volunteers demonstrate to the local people that someone cares about them – by just being there.

There is often a larger positive impact made when taking part in the community outreach programs in remote areas. These remote areas struggle to get access to resources and the skills of a medical professional; therefore, they always seem to be very appreciative of the visiting students.

Running a health clinic for community members and visiting a government school where the children could not afford to attend regular health check-ups is an incredible experience. This assists in breaking down international barriers and helps local people become more familiar with modern medicine. Performing public health checks is a great way to get involved, contribute to the local village, and students feel that they are truly able to make a difference.

Many nurses have volunteered in remote clinics and delivered training for staff on the ‘Days for Girls’ (DfG) menstruation kits. They often walk away with a huge respect for the people that continue to face challenges in their daily existence. The local people have so little, and yet they are generous, kind, caring and positive, and they are especially grateful for assistance in supporting their dignity. Local people are always keen to attend a clinic when there is a foreign doctor visiting.

When interacting with local kids on a daily basis as you walk to work, they soon recognise you, wave hello and call your name. Students always seem to be rewarded with gratitude, lots of smiles, and kind hospitality of a local coffee or tea. Occasionally, there is a gift of a traditional scarf or locally made craft. 

The people living in these developing countries teach us more about resilience and strength than what we teach them. There are frequent invitations to return to visit them, and many students sincerely hope they can.
One volunteer reported that the Khmer people that he looked after were profusely grateful for the attention. They expressed this with a broad smile, a bow of the head with hands in the prayer position, while repeatedly saying ‘or-koon’.

Volunteers have even visited rural schools to donate clothing and equipment. The donation of a computer was an invaluable gift, as the solution to building a better life lies in education and good health. The exposure to just one shared computer can make a world of difference. What is always really touching is the appreciation received from the schools. They typically hold a ceremony and present volunteers with a small gift and provide lunch. It makes you realise just how significant a small contribution can be.

A group of medical students were once overwhelmed when they completed the health checks at the school for deaf children on a cold winter day in Nepal. As they left, the deaf children sang to them, ‘You have made our hearts warm’.

Many volunteers report that even after returning home, the memories of working overseas are vivid and stay with them forever. One remembers a ten-year-old boy who took his eight- year-old brother on his bicycle for several kilometres to be seen at the clinic. The younger brother had cut his foot on some metal a few days earlier and the wound had become infected. The boys were being cared for by their thirteen-year-old brother while their mother had gone to Thailand. Both boys were very dirty, so they were given clean T-shirts. After dressing the younger boy’s foot, they rode off again down the laneway.

Visions of new mothers coming in to receive formula for their babies under the free formula program is another memorable experience. The mothers are too malnourished to support their babies with breast-feeding, and even with the formula, the baby’s weight is well below the rates that you see in developed countries. I once witnessed the gratitude and relief on the face of a young man after the volunteers had cleaned his badly infected foot and dressed it. Even though he could barely walk, he had continued to work, as he had no other source of income. He was given some rice and sauce so that he could stop working for a day or two to rest his foot.

Making a positive impact in remote communities

These images and memories are deeply touching, and many students and volunteers return for another ‘tour of duty’. The work that is being done by medical students and professionals with the local staff makes a difference to many lives, reversing the cycle of poverty and despair that these people would otherwise be trapped in.