International student and senior Rejoice Ngongoni’s month-long trip to South Africa in June strengthened the resolve of the Ohio Wesleyan University senior to attend medical school and become a physician.
Ngongoni of Harare, Zimbabwe, is a chemistry and pre-medicine double major. She received a Theory-to-Practice grant to study the health system and health care delivery to under-served communities in Durban, South Africa. During her visit, she was immersed in a health care system that is short-staffed and burdened by an overwhelming need to care for the many HIV-positive and AIDS patients—which included infants through adults.
“My experience confirmed that I want to be a doctor,” Ngongoni says. She lived with a host family while participating in the program through Child Family Health International, a San Francisco-based nonprofit agency that provides opportunities in service-learning related to health care.
First, the students learned a few words in the Zulu language to help them communicate in a basic manner with patients.
Part of her time was spent in the large medical school-affiliated King Edward Hospital, where she worked with many HIV-positive and tuberculosis-afflicted patients. She learned to read X-rays for TB and accompanied medical residents on their rounds visiting patients. She saw many gruesome things, including surgical amputations, the effects of Stage 4 AIDS, and many types of TB.
“You see symptoms you usually don’t see in the U.S.,” she says. “This experience was very empowering. We were treated like medical students.”
Her hands-on opportunities grew as she worked in the more remote medical clinics, which had few doctors, and most diagnostic care provided by nurses.
Because there is so little help for treating patients in the clinics, she was asked to listen to chests with a stethoscope, give injections, and perform HIV rapid tests, which involve pricking the skin with a needle. She also took vital signs, including blood pressure and temperature.
“It was assumed that all patients in the clinics were HIV-positive,” she says. Many had compromised immune systems. About 98 percent of the patients at one location were HIV-positive.
She also worked at The Blue Roof Wellness Centre—a medical facility in Durban co-founded by singer Alicia Keyes, who serves as its ambassador. “It’s interesting to see what can be done with money. They actually had doctors to help the patients. They provided counseling before, during, and after HIV testing.”
Many HIV-positive or AIDS patients default on their treatment because of a lack of support from family, money, or transportation issues, Ngongoni says. A mobile clinic searches the streets for the defaulters.
“Working in South Africa was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Ngongoni says. “This was when I realized that medicine is not just science. There’s a social aspect to it. And I saw how medical decisions impact patients.”
Ngongoni made a presentation about her project at OWU’s Summer Science Research Symposium in September. She plans to apply to medical school within a year or two after graduating in May.