Rwandan experience stokes student’s love for Global Health

Tamsyn Gaynor at the University for Global Health Equity campus.

“It was an incredible experience and I’d go again in a heartbeat.” This was how 4th year medical student, Tamsyn Gaynor, who recently returned from a two-week extra-curricular medical elective in Rwanda described the experience.

Gaynor spent one week in a teaching hospital, the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Butare in the Huye district of Rwanda’s southern province – and then a couple of days of travelling afterwards to visit the University for Global Health Equity (UGHE) in the northern province of Rwanda (the Butaro campus).

In an interview, she said Rwanda came up as an option after she indicated her interest in public and global health. The funding of the trip was through Stellenbosch University.

I’ve been impressed with the progress in Rwanda’s healthcare system over the past decade so learning more about it first hand was an exciting prospect. I also wanted to learn more about the systems and workings of their healthcare system in comparison to South Africa,” Gaynor said.

She worked in the obstetrics and gynaecology department for the week in the hospital.

“Each day I was in a different section trying to learn as much as possible. I worked in admissions, out-patients department, theatre and the wards including the labour ward.

“There was a language barrier as I don’t speak Kinyarwanda (the local language) and most of the patients didn’t speak English. However, I still had lovely interactions with patients and the little bit of Kinyarwanda I learnt went a long way.

“It was wonderful to see how progressed they are as an African country and I was able to get a feel for what healthcare is like in rural Rwanda.

“The registrars and students that were rotating through the department were great to interact with. The doctors were eager to share their knowledge and the students were hungry to learn.”

Gaynor – who visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial - said a highlight of her time in Rwanda was seeing how a nation can unite towards a common goal post the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “This gave me hope for South Africa that when people work together, great things can be accomplished.

“Another highlight would be my visit to UGHE. The initiative and vision for this university inspired me and further instilled hope and excitement in me about global health and community upliftment.”

Gaynor had one weekend to explore a little, and used the time to visit a coffee plantation, called Huye Mountain Coffee. “Rwanda is well known for its coffee and to get a taste of it and the background of it was a privilege.”

She travelled to UGHE by motorbike – one of the main forms of transport in Rwanda – past Lake Burera and saw great views of the “Land of a Thousand Hills”.

Gaynor said her overall impression of the Rwandan health care system was good.

“There are still few specialists in the country but great effort is being put into training medical students and helping them specialise. Most people I spoke to, including medical students, wanted to stay and practice medicine in Rwanda. It was encouraging to see people proud of their country and wanting to make a difference. Beyond this, the hard-working Rwandans inspired me. They want to see their country thrive.

“You do see the effects of poor healthcare in rural areas through seeing the patients referred to the teaching hospital from the peripheral/district hospitals. However the standard of care at the teaching hospital encouraged me and my hope is that this filters down to the district hospitals.

“It was interesting to see the effect of the implementation of insurance and community insurance in the country. 92% of Rwanda's population is insured which has drastically increased the number of people receiving health care. I was blown away by the effect of this. The medical care is still often very basic especially in district hospitals but this has still made a big difference.”

Asked about her future career plans, Gaynor said: “At this stage I’m not sure of specifics but I am passionate about rural and community health. My heart is to stay and work on the African continent. I’d like to be involved in providing healthcare to the most vulnerable people and those often forgotten about.

“I would like to add a masters of global/public health onto my degree to augment my knowledge and to benefit the health care of those around me.”

Sue Segar