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2 Week Specials, Medicine in Nepal by Iley Johnson

My name is Iley and I live in Queensland, Australia. I chose to go on the Nepal Medicine placement in the summer holidays before commencing my final year of school. I have always known that I would like to pursue a career in medicine and science when I'm older, but nearing the end of school, I had to start making some decisions and developing concrete goals. At school one Wednesday afternoon, I was presented with the perfect opportunity: a high school volunteering project which ran over the summer holidays.


Volunteering in Nepal

A Projects Abroad staff member came to our school and talked to us about the various programs offered. I was immediately drawn to the medical placement in Nepal, as it was the perfect blend of appreciating an entirely new culture, stepping way out of my comfort zone and gaining experience in my potential future profession.

The year of anticipation and planning for my trip went by surprisingly fast. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to board. I have to say that sitting alone in the gate that night was probably the most scared I've ever felt. I had no idea what to expect, and I had never flown internationally by myself before. However, the incredible view of the Himalayas and the city of Kathmandu from the plane window quickly renewed all of my excitement for the trip.

Despite the overwhelming experience of stepping out of the airport to an onslaught of drivers, noise and unfamiliar sights, I settled in quite quickly. Our supervisor was extremely helpful and kind and I found myself making friends easily. Over the first weekend, the other members of my project arrived. Before we left for Chitwan, we did some sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, and adjusted to the new culture, climate and food. I was definitely not used to the freezing weather of Kathmandu in wintertime, and I was very thankful for the scarves I bought at a local shop. Nepali tea became my staple during the cold mornings, and I even tried coffee for the first time.

Arrival to Chitwan and Medical Placements

We travelled down through the mountains for about 5 hours in a bus to get to Chitwan, where we spent the 2 weeks of our placement. Chitwan was a lot warmer and quieter than Kathmandu, and on most days we woke up to Western music from a Nepali wedding happening at the hotel.

Generally we would eat breakfast together and then divide into smaller groups of 4 to go to our respective hospitals and clinics, ranging from a small community clinic, to a large teaching hospital, a cancer hospital and an eye clinic. I was lucky enough to see an endoscopy being performed on a patient, a child's birth and meet many unfortunate patients of throat, stomach and mouth cancer as they recovered from their various maladies.

We would have lunch at the hospital cafeterias, eating traditional Nepali food like Mo Mos and vegetable curries, where we suffered through the conflicting wonderful tastes and burning spices that were usually reserved for the locals. After our day touring the hospitals, we went back to the hotel where the whole group was given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture, from shopping at the local markets to participating a Nepali yoga class and taking a lesson in the Nepali language. After dinner, we bonded as a group, playing card games and learning about each other's lives to such an extent that it almost felt like we had known each other for years.

During the weekend, we visited the Chitwan National Park where we trekked through the jungle filled with elephants and deer, canoed through a misty abyss of crocodile-infested waters and visited an elephant breeding centre.

Volunteers abroad

The most rewarding experience however, was easily the day that we went to a local community primary school and taught the young children the correct way to brush their teeth, creating a catchy song and demonstrating with several eager kids. Later that day, we visited Devghat, a cultural and spiritual area which included an elderly retirement home and we walked the trails and across swinging bridges to beautiful temples by the river. That day was actually my 17th birthday, and I couldn't have imagined a more incredible way to spend it.

After our two weeks in Chitwan, we travelled back to Kathmandu. We spent our final couple of days on the placement visiting an HIV clinic and nutritional centre for children, and doing some more sightseeing. We walked up to a temple and we felt on top of the world as we looked down on the sprawling city below us and the mountain tops of the Himalayas.

While becoming immersed in the culture of the country, I also found myself picking up on the very basics of the language and met kind and helpful locals who were more than happy to show us around or hold a broken conversation in half-Nepali, half-English.

Final Word

If there was anything I could suggest for future volunteers, it would be to embrace the culture, take advantage of every opportunity and don't be afraid to make suggestions. For example, our group suggested a dance class and an opportunity to have mehndi done for us and our supervisor organised it for use a few nights later. Also, be sure to pack back-up clothes in your hand luggage and I would definitely bring chocolate from home and tissues (I got a bit of a cold and they were surprisingly hard to find there). The project co-ordinators will tell you that the trip will only be as exciting as you make it, and this is more than true. Find any excuse to ask questions, be engaged and involved in the activities, and try to focus on the positives, even when things go wrong.

I am so glad that I undertook this trip and I can certainly say that it had been the most gratifying experience of my life so far. I was exposed to some of the harsher realities of the world and it opened my eyes to different world views. I met beautiful people in a country filled with beauty, and I want nothing more than to go back and do it all again. It has strengthened my desire to work in medicine so I can visit Nepal again and make a difference in the lives of the people who have inspired me.

Iley Johnson

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