UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

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25 March 2020
Image - UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

The Phase 3 Medicine student spent her elective term helping deliver babies and assisting during a measles epidemic, strengthening her aspiration to make a meaningful impact in under-resourced communities

Tell us about your elective term? Where did you go?
Between our fifth and sixth year of medical studies, UNSW provides an opportunity to do eight weeks of elective placement in a field and location of your choice. My friend Rose convinced me to spend four of those weeks working with her in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital in Apia, Samoa. However, the measles epidemic arrived just days before we did, and I ended up spending the second half of my placement working with local and foreign aid paediatric teams, treating young children with various complications secondary to measles infection.

What were some of the key highlights of the experience?
I don’t even know where to start! Samoa is just such an incredible part of the world and my elective experience there was outstanding. The first two weeks on the O&G ward were so much fun, and I got to be very hands on with antenatal care and births. One of the key highlights was delivering a beautiful, healthy baby girl (weighing in at 4.3kgs!) in my first week of placement – and to top it off, they named her after me! Funnily enough, the next baby I delivered was also going to be called Isabelle, but when they realised that their newborn was (unfortunately) a boy, they asked to name him after my father instead. I like to think that little Isabelle and little Andrew are going to be best friends, the ‘iconic duo’ of Samoa, with birthdays only a couple of days apart. 

image - UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

Isabelle and the baby she delivered. Image: Supplied

Another highlight was participating in the Elective Aid Program from the Medical Students’ Aid Project (MSAP). MSAP provided $500 to purchase much-needed medical supplies for the hospital in Samoa, which we sourced with the help of Airborne Aid. Rose and I pooled our luggage allowance on our flight and between us we ended up filling a suitcase to the brim with tourniquets, dressings, gauze, sanitiser, and otoscopy equipment. Lugging this bag onto the ward was like Christmas had come early! The staff were ecstatic that we were able to provide even the smallest things, and their gratitude was so overwhelming. This was a fantastic way to make a very tangible contribution on an elective term and give back to the community which hosted us with such love.

A lowlight was having my finger mistaken for a piece of papaya by a peckish turtle. Yes, it turns out that turtles can bite. It’s hard to explain. 

image - UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

The views were a perk of the job. Image: Supplied.

How has your elective term influenced or informed your degree work?
Working in the Australian healthcare system, measles is virtually non-existent. We are so privileged to live and work in a country with such fantastic health literacy and abundant health resources, that the true reality of vaccine-preventable diseases is often forgotten. 

We are starting to see the consequences of this with small pockets of measles recurrence around Australia, but it pales in comparison to the devastation that struck Samoa at the end of last year. The hospital was overrun with measles cases, so much so that foreign aid teams brought over tents as makeshift intensive care units to be set up in the carpark. It was incredibly frustrating and so heartbreaking to work with a patient population that consisted largely of children under the age of 2, dying of a completely preventable disease. 

I have a renewed respect for the power of multidisciplinary teamwork, watching health professionals from all specialties and backgrounds coming together to implement an efficient and effective crisis response. I also have a renewed appreciation for the value of good primary care and the delivery of health promotion/disease prevention materials. 

My time in Samoa really reminded me why I began Medicine and strengthened my aspirations to make a meaningful impact in under-resourced communities. 

Tell us about how you were able to get this fantastic photo!

image - UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

A Samoan Fia Fia performance. Image: Supplied.

This photo was taken at a Fia Fia performance! Fia Fia is a traditional Samoan fire dance and musical performance, and it is absolutely mesmerising. Women dance and sing, often celebrating the kava bowl, while the men throw batons alight at both ends high into the air. 

It was such a unique and intimate insight into a culture so different from my own. The dancer pictured in the photo was named Jack, and he definitely loved the camera attention. He saw me come up closer for a subtle photo and plastered on a Hollywood grin for the snap.

Would you recommend an elective like yours to other students?
Absolutely! We don’t often get to work in resource-poor settings or within cultures different from our own – so I’d say grab it with both hands! Samoa was a great balance of being very hands on and unique, while also having great student support and teaching. It was also invaluable having Rose there with me to share our experiences together when immersed so deeply in a foreign environment and culture.  

Plus, the entire country looks like something from a postcard, and you could never get sick of waking up to those beach views. I cannot recommend it enough. 

image - UNSW Medicine student Isabelle McKay makes a difference in Samoa

Isabelle at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital in Apia, Samoa. Image: Supplied

The UNSW Medicine Elective Term is a compulsory component of the UNSW undergraduate medicine program for students in their final year of study.  Phase 3 medical students can choose to partake in a medical placement in Australian or overseas. Some students, like Isabelle, may choose to do it in a developing country.

The Medical Students’ Aid Project (MSAP) is a student-run charitable global health group at UNSW who connect and empower students to positively contribute towards healthcare equality through educational events, fundraisers, and by supplying grants to students for the donation of medical supplies to hospitals in developing countries through the Elective Aid program.  Isabelle entered and won the 2020 Electives Photo Competition.