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Photo credit: Dr Sara Al-Ansari
In 2016 I volunteered in a medical aid camp in Najaf, Iraq, organised by ‘A World Without Barriers’: an independent, non-governmental charity that focuses on vulnerable individuals in areas of war or poverty.
Working as a doctor in London, I had no idea what to expect; by the end of my trip, I began to truly appreciate the importance of culture and background on overall health. I wanted to put my medical knowledge and experiences into action to improve the health of those who have little or no access to basic healthcare, a service that I take for granted in my everyday life. My hope was to give back to a community what I have been given for my whole life.
Our consultations were largely primary-care based: what struck me were the conditions that patients were faced with; many were found to have undiagnosed and uncontrolled hypertension and diabetes. Treating patients involved prescribing medication, but more importantly, educating them about basic health principles that they were not aware existed.
Although I was not in a clinical setting that I was accustomed to, I strove to maintain the standards of care that I would uphold in the UK. This was made more difficult by the fact that I did not speak their language; with local students acting as translators, it was essential to break down my questions into simple language, in as short a time as possible.
I saw a large number of orphans in the clinic. The number of girls with burns on their limbs was shocking, attributed to having to do housework from a young age. Many had previously lived in areas or war and violence, and were emotionally scarred from what they had seen and experienced. Their stories were harrowing, and it was heartbreaking for me that there was only so much I could do.
There is very little mental healthcare, and social services are not prominent in Iraq – and these patients needed ongoing, long term counselling and help. The prominence of untreated anxiety, depression and PTSD had an alarming effect on physical health, with many diagnoses of IBS, chronic back pain and tension headaches.
Working in Iraq has given me a newfound perspective on my role as a doctor, and has genuinely changed my practice for the better. I would thoroughly recommend this experience; it has honestly opened my eyes and allowed me to improve myself both clinically and as a person.
Alisha Allana is a CT1 in anaesthetics in Surrey. She was a runner-up in this year’s BMA Doctors as Volunteers poster competition
Find out more about the competition