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How Two Days Of Medical Volunteering Can Change The Lives Of 40 People

  • 5 min read

Like many things in South Africa, there’s a wide gulf between the private healthcare sector and the public healthcare sector, with some of the immediate differences ranging from the facilities and equipment that are available, to how overburdened a clinic or hospital is.

A lot needs to be done to make affordable healthcare accessible to everyone. While the country waits on proposed solutions by the Department of Health, the National Health Insurance (NHI) Act being one, much can still be done in the interim to help bridge the inequality gap.

What might not be immediately obvious is how rewarding it can be to volunteer and treat patients in rural areas whose lives are massively impacted by procedures that are considered common place in private practice.

It’s a lesson that Dr Caroline Gooding, an ophthalmologist based in Johannesburg, learnt when she and five friends volunteered through the Tshemba Foundation at the Tintswalo District Hospital, a 423-bed public hospital located in Acornhoek in Mpumalanga.

“We did 40 cataract procedures in two days, and it was one of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my life,” says Dr Gooding.

“In our private practice, patients come in with pretty good vision and leave with 20/20 vision. At Tintswalo, we spent two days changing the lives of 40 people. People who came in functionally blind, and left able to see, walk by themselves and get back to their normal lives. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m not used to getting a lump in my throat when I’m treating patients. It was just such an incredible experience.”

In fact, Dr Gooding and her team changed the lives of far more than 40 patients. Functional blindness has far-reaching consequences in rural and low-income areas. Those inflicted with cataracts cannot work or be left alone. They are not bringing in an income and other family members must stay with them, limiting the household’s income even further. The knock-on effect can be devasting – and yet cataract blindness is completely reversable, provided the facilities, equipment and specialists are available. This is where the Tshemba Foundation comes in.

A transformative medical volunteering experience

Dr Gooding first heard about the Tshemba Foundation, a non-profit organisation that combines medical volunteering with an African bush experience to impact rural healthcare in South Africa, through word of mouth.

“One of our friends knew Tintswalo well, having completed their community service there, and the rest of us had also spent some time at the hospital, but the involvement of the Tshemba Foundation is a real game-changer,” says Dr Gooding.

“Not only do volunteers stay at the most beautiful private lodge near the Kruger Park, but Tshemba has also invested in state-of-the-art equipment for the Tintswalo Eye Clinic. It’s difficult to operate on eyes without the right equipment, no matter how skilled you are as a doctor. This equipment not only makes the entire procedure smoother, but complication rates are much lower. It’s very appealing for a specialist to work under those conditions.”

The Tshemba Foundation was created to add tangible value to the Tintswalo District Hospital and its outlying clinics. With a catchment area of 500,000 people, Tintswalo always has need for additional specialists, even if they’re only able to volunteer for a few days.

“We like to call it a Leave of Purpose,” says Barbara McGorian, CEO of the Tshemba Foundation. “We’ve created a beautiful bush experience for our volunteers, and in some cases, such as the eye clinic, we’ve been able to create a state-of-the-art facility as well. We always love it when volunteers can stay for a few weeks, but so much good can be done in just a few days as well, and that’s really the purpose we’re living.”

Family and changing lives

The team of five ophthalmologists and one anaesthetist took up six of the nine rooms at the lodge, with Dr Gooding and another colleague bringing their families with for the weekend as well. “My husband took our daughters to the Kruger Park while we were operating, and then I got to take them with me to the post-operation check-ups, which was also so important,” says Dr Gooding. “Our kids aren’t always exposed to the realities of rural South Africa, and I believe they should be. We need to understand every facet of our country and how we can support each other.”

A Leave of Purpose is good for the soul

Dr Gooding’s husband was so impressed by the lodge and so moved by what his wife and her team achieved in a handful of days, that he is now organising his own Leave of Purpose with his colleagues, a team of gynaecologists, which is another vital speciality that will add real value to the community.

“The entire experience was incredible. You have this deeply fulfilling day – even if it was pretty exhausting – and in the evening we were all together at a stunning lodge. We’ve already booked our next Leave of Purpose as a group. It’s food for the soul,” says Dr Gooding.

Book your #LeaveOfPurpose today

While the Tshemba Foundation’s volunteer programme is best suited for longer stays, there are short-term opportunities available that can accommodate busy schedules while still maximising the impact of volunteering at Tintswalo and the local clinics in the area.