Guest blog by Nicola Toffelmire
The best decision I made at the University of Waterloo was to internationalize my degree. I was granted the opportunity to work in three different countries during my co-op terms at the University of Waterloo: Togo, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
Each of these experiences challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone by exploring unfamiliar places and becoming aware of new cultures. I gained an understanding of different healthcare systems, and these experiences abroad solidified my desire to pursue a graduate program and future career in the field of global health.
My first co-operative term abroad was divided and I spent the first six weeks in Togo, and the later six weeks in Sri Lanka. The first placement was in Lomé, Togo at the ‘Action Développement Santé Pour Tous (ADS)’ clinic. Here, I assisted a speech and physical therapist while they conducted sessions in French with local families. I would spend six to eight hours a day completing any tasks assigned to me. During my spare time, my host Togolese family immersed me into their culture by providing me the opportunity to attend weddings, cultural gatherings, and church ceremonies. They encouraged me to try new foods, visit the Grand Marché market, and engage with their extended family and friends. I experienced a strong sense of community belonging, which made leaving very difficult.
My second placement was in Sri Lanka at the Nagoda/Kalutara General Hospital. I divided my time between numerous hospital wards, including the general medical ward, pediatric ward, surgical ward, surgery theatre, gynecology and high-risk pregnancy ward, delivery room and the medical forensic unit. The physician I was paired with challenged me to step outside my comfort zone by granting me the opportunity to be involved with patient visits, physical examinations and observe surgical procedures. On the weekends, I would assist a team that travelled to isolated villages to provide free medical screening and care. Individuals voluntarily came to our mobile clinic to have their blood pressure, blood glucose, and pulse taken, and a local pharmacist would provide patients with prescriptions according to their results. My involvement in Sri Lanka led me to witness first-hand different health inequalities based on social determinants of health, specifically the challenges of accessing medical care in a remote, rural region.
My final co-op experience abroad was in Tanzania, helping Canadian researchers with a hypertension study. The study uses mobile phones to help patients manage their hypertension, specifically targeting individuals in rural villages. During this placement, I learned the importance of cultural sensitivity, and the benefit of partnerships with local actors to implement sustainable, effective health programs.
These experiences have shaped my future by solidifying my passion for global health research. Travelling abroad gives you the opportunity to explore yourself, new cultures, meet new people, and provide you with a life-changing experience. It changed my life in so many ways and I am grateful for such a positive experience and the new friends I met around the world throughout my journey.