Expedition Medicine in Patagonia with Raleigh International
by Jason Christopher
Two years after graduating from Sheffield on a self-constructed GP training scheme, I was following a well-trodden path with uncommitted footsteps, finding the prospect of a career in medicine uninspiring. Somewhat disillusioned, I knew it was time to try something very different, hoping I would return with a much needed change of perspective and a fresh attitude. When I heard about Raleigh International through a friend I believed this would provide me with the break I was looking for.
Raleigh International aims to develop young people aged 17-25 from a wide range of countries and backgrounds by organising expeditions in various countries around the world. These expeditions consist of adventure, environmental and community projects. On my expedition in Chile there were 40 volunteer staff running the expedition, nine of whom were medical staff (7 doctors and 2 nurses), and there were 82 Venturers taking part. Staff and Venturers had been fund-raising for up to a year to pay for their expedition to Chile. During the ten-week expedition, following a training week, each Venturer worked at three different project sites, each project lasting three weeks.
The staff travelled out to Chile two and a half weeks in advance to prepare for the arrival of the Venturers. During this time we assembled the medical kits. I was looking forward to helping young people face up to fears, worries, and challenges, grow in confidence and gain a greater understanding of themselves and different cultures. I was also eager to acquire experience in leadership and managing groups. Raleigh International is extremely safety conscious and the contingency planning for potential problems, medical or otherwise, is an on-going process. This planning is essential but can be tedious in the knowledge that thankfully most, if not all, of these problems will not arrise during the expedition. Not expecting to be practising much medicine I found it ironic that even before the Venturers had arrived I found myself attending one of the staff who had amputated the distal phalanges of his forefinger and middle finger in a pulley.
My first placement was at a community project in Coyhaique, the capital of region XI in Chile, which has a population of 40,000. The objective was to use a construction project as a means for integrating ourselves into the community as much as possible. Twelve Venturers and three staff including myself, were to help build a sixteen person accommodation block for the homeless elderly of the city. The staff team consisted of a Chilean builder, an ex-local Venturer who spoke no English, a policeman from the UK and myself. I had no experience in construction but I could speak a little Spanish. After three weeks we had almost completed the six rooms, two showers, and six internal walls and had built two external walls. When not building we took time to visit two schools and an orphanage, go trekking in Coyhaique National Park, climb a nearby mountain called Cerro Chichao and be interviewed on Chilean radio. We had many meetings with local students who helped us improve our Spanish at the same time as improving their English. However, given the wide range of accents that was a feature of our group, and all Raleigh groups, it was often difficult for the Chileans. I remember once leaving a Chilean girl, keen to learn English, in a café with a Scot, a Liverpudlian and Chinese guy, all with very strong accents - I am left to wonder how she got on. Medically, I was fortunate to be occupied only with small lacerations, bruises and cement in the eye. My role as a medic was minimal and consisted mostly of encouraging an atmosphere of health and hygiene and prevention of accidents in the work and living places.
My second phase was an adventure project with twelve Venturers and four staff in the region of the Cerro Castillo mountain range, on a mountain of about 2,600m altitude in the heart of Patagonia. We spent time learning many winter mountaineering skills such including navigation, emergency shelter building and snow-pack analysis, in order to avoid avalanches. We learned how to do an ice-axe arrest (a way of breaking your fall down a steep slope) and mastered foothold-digging techniques that enabled us to walk safely on the snowy slopes. Camping at the snow line certainly had its challenges. Winds of 80-90 mph would tear fly sheets off tents and when feeding oneself breakfast, would blow all of the porridge off the spoon in the journey from mess-tin to mouth. On occasions we only had wet clothes to wear and since they froze over-night, come morning it meant they would have to thaw next to the skin. The trekking, carrying 25kg backpacks along uneven ground, took its toll on the knees of the group and two Venturers had to return to field base early because of partially torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. I also treated people with minor lacerations and my first case of snow blindness.
I have now spent a few days on my third and final phase - another community project. We are in Puerto Gaviota, a remote fishing settlement of 150 people, only officially recognised by the government since August 1999. The group, four staff and ten Venturers are renovating the walls, ceilings, staircases and fire escapes of the tin and timber building in which seventeen children go to school. I reckoned our community integration was going well when, within 24 hours five from our group found ourselves in a 10x5' hut with a fisherman and his stuffed ferret singing 'Strangers in the night' whilst sharing a maté (a Chilean herbal drink). I am looking forward to going fishing with the locals, amongst dolphins and killer whales, teaching the children and our group handing over a completely renovated school at the end of this phase.
My experiences though not complete have given me a fulfilling three months break from medicine. I believe the ways in which my Raleigh adventure has affected me will be more apparent once I have returned to the UK. I recommend it to all doctors and nurses wanting an adventurous break from their career. Thank you for my two sponsors, Gleebelands Avenue Surgery and UCB Pharmaceuticals.
For further information on taking a medic position on a Raleigh International expedition please visit the web site www.raleigh.org.uk
Raleigh International runs 10 different expeditions a year to countries as diverse as Chile, Mongolia, Namibia and Ghana. Over 20,000 people from 75 different countries have taken part in Raleigh expeditions since 1984 to 36 destinations
Raleigh International is a youth development charity which aims to inspire young people from all backgrounds and nationalities to reach their full potential through working together challenging projects, benefiting the environment and communities around the world
15% of participants are recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds through the Youth Development Programme
12% of participants are recruited from overseas countries
Some information may have changed since this article was first published
Image courtesy Travel South America