There was no average day in the life of a volunteer in a Ghanaian hospital, but it would usually start at 7am. It became very apparent that the main difference between England and Ghana was that we are privileged enough to have the NHS. Unfortunately few patients in Ghana can afford health insurance.
It was heart-breaking to see patients die because they couldn’t afford the treatment, medication or surgery they so desperately needed to survive. The most traumatic was a five-year-old boy who had fallen out of a tree in 2016 and, because of a brain injury, had developed hydrocephalus. The parents could not afford surgery or pain relief for their child which meant he was in extreme pain from the build-up of fluid on his brain.
The only option his parents were left with was to wait and watch their son die in extreme agony. We spoke to the consultant and he suggested that the most beneficial help we could provide in this circumstance, would be to pay for morphine so that the boy could die in peace rather than in pain. If the boy had had insurance for the year, he would have had the surgery he required and would not have suffered a painful death. It really brought home to me the value of the NHS and how lucky we are to live where we do.
Most afternoons, we would go out into the most remote villages, where we would provide immediate care. The people in the villages were the most vulnerable because there were isolated from hospitals, didn’t have resources and there was an extreme lack of education around hygiene and care.
We saw some machete and gunshot wounds which needed weekly cleaning and dressing to avoid infection. The most severe case involved a 54-year-old man who had picked a wart which had become infected. Due to lack of education, he put shells on the wound to cover and protect it from mosquitos. The infection became very severe – to the point that we paid for him to have a skin graft for his leg to heal, otherwise it would have resulted in an amputation.
While we were in the village, we saw a man crawling on the floor. Due to the language barrier, we were unable to ask him why he couldn’t walk. We were told that he was born with a limb deformity and leg length discrepancy and that he hadn’t been able to walk in 22 years. A week later, we returned to the village with crutches for the man and taught him how to walk for the first time. I will never forget the smile on his face as he took his first step.
Malnutrition is a growing problem in most of the villages we visited. We saw a baby who looked like a newborn even though he was two months’ old. Her mum wasn’t producing milk because she had no money to feed herself. We brought the baby formula milk and gave her vitamin D supplements. This, however, is not sustainable and will run out. It is worrying how many women can’t feed their own babies because they are not receiving enough nutrition themselves.
In the villages we visited, mental health was deeply misunderstood. It is blamed on demons taking over the individual with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or any other mental health. The individual would be sent away from the village and given herbal remedies to help with their condition.
It is evident that due to a lack of education, individuals are not receiving the correct treatment and making the illness or condition worse without knowing it. This could be prevented if we could provide education in villages about basic hygiene, and wound care and wound dressing. If there is anything that we should be contributing towards, it is insurance. This would prevent so many deaths and mean that patients would receive the treatment they need to survive.
Hannah Rice is a student nurse at University of East Anglia