Articles and Case Studies

My Elective - Dili, East Timor

27 May 2012

Our tiny island neighbour East Timor seemed an obvious choice for a medical elective, however with limited information available, I had no idea what to expect. After some internet research and a recommendation from an Australian medical practitioner, I soon had a month long volunteer position lined up in Dili.

Member Name: Daniel Cattanach
University: Griffith University
Destination: Dili, East Timor
Hospital: Bairo Pite Clinic
Length of elective: 4 weeks

Working in Dili

Having only completed the first year of a four year postgraduate medical degree, I had no experience and limited knowledge. Landing at Dili after a sleepless night, I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to the Bairo Pite Clinic. I arrived half way through ward rounds and was thrust immediately into the action.

Each morning Dr Dan Murphy, the founder and head clinician, would lead an entourage of foreign medical students, local Timorese staff and visiting medical practitioners around a dusty seemingly disorganised small medical clinic. Dr Dan as he is affectionately known to thousands of Timorese, maintains an incredible pace as he sees approximately 300 patients per day, seven days a week.

Having completed medical school in America, Dr Dan has spent the last 15 years in East Timor making an inspiring contribution towards the healthcare of the Timorese people. During morning rounds, Dr Dan would issue instructions to medical students regarding the management of patients admitted to the clinic.

There were four wards, the general medical ward, the tuberculosis ward, the nutrition ward and the maternity ward. Medical students under guidance from Dr Dan staffed the wards and would carry out all day to day tasks.

For many students, myself included, this was fairly daunting, challenging and the first time they had been given such responsibility. Pathology was extremely varied. Tuberculosis was unfortunately common and therefore this always seemed to be a differential regardless of presentation. Other pathologies frequently seen included malaria, typhoid, dengue fever as well as an array of tropical infections. Given the limited resources available, diagnosis was mostly clinical. There was a small pathology lab which provided testing for a limited number of diseases.

Challenges working in Dili

During my time in Timor, I saw medicine very differently from what I had experienced at home. At times, it was difficult to accept the fate of sick Timorese who had they been in Australia, may have been treated successfully by expert consultants. It was at times very frustrating being unable to do anything for very sick patients.

Travel opportunities

East Timor is a beautiful country and any student doing an elective should also be a tourist for a few days. Diving the countries many coral reefs and exploring some of the islands highlands will soon have visiting students rejuvenated and relaxed.

My recommendation

I have no doubt the experience of volunteering in East Timor will eventually make me a better doctor and I recommend this clinic to anyone seeking adventure and a challenging elective in international health.



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