A Medical Elective at St John’s Hospital, Bangalore, India

I try my best not to talk shop here on the blog. After all, it is supposed to be my extra-curricular interest, a chance to escape the highs and lows of the day job. (Plus, I find it hugely uninspiring to find medics, who aren’t capable of talking about anything other than medicine). But when Kelly, Emma and Rebecca chose the theme of Fish out of Water Experiences for their monthly blog link up, this travel memory leaped to the front of mind, like a gold-medal winning, Olympic long-jumper.

At medical schools in the UK and many other parts of the world, students are often required to undertake a “ medical elective.” This is essentially an opportunity to spend two months in an external organisation (hospital, community clinic, research establishment etc) to provide exposure on what the vast field of medicine can encompass and the electives are usually self-funded. Most opt to go abroad, which is very much encouraged. Who’s going to turn down an opportunity to travel in the name of learning right?!St John's Hospital Bangalore

St John’s Medical College, Bangalore

After much deliberation, I decided to head to Bangalore, India. To those who knew me, this may have come as something of a surprise. Being of Indian descent, life has been peppered with visits to India so why wasn’t I opting for a new country? The truth is, the only part of India I had ever seen was Northern India, where most of my family are based. I knew it may have been my only opportunity to head to Southern India and grasped the opportunity with apprehensive palms. It was to be my first trip alone – the first of many reasons why I felt like a fish on dry land.

It wasn’t actually the bugs crawling out of the drain in my accommodation on the first day or even the daily “bucket bath” shower experience that came as a shock, both of which I was prepared for and managed. You’ve either roughed it in India or you haven’t and you’ll know exactly what a “bucket bath” is if you have. To be honest, as basic as it was, the fact that my room was en-suite with a flushing toilet came as a pleasant surprise!

What did surprise me was the launderette around the corner, making redundant my mini-pack of hand-washing detergent. It was the fully equipped gym, a stone’s throw away from the hospital and the plush shopping mall equally nearby. Having met a fabulous bunch of fellow medical students from England, Germany and the US, we spent many evenings in swanky bars and restaurants for a fraction of the price we would pay at home.

Far from being the small town India experience that I had become accustomed to as a child, suddenly being slap bang in the middle of the large metropolis of Bangalore was an India I found perplexing – immensely good fun but strangely unfamiliar. Even Bangalore’s temperate and breezy warmth, afforded by its hilltop position, was a far cry from the choking humidity I had so frequently struggled with in the past.Forum Mall BangaloreI had brought all my baggiest clothes, having previously always dressed conservatively to respect the customs of smaller towns and villages and older generations. Here in Bangalore, I had never felt more frumpy being in my slacks whilst so many local women ambled confidently down the streets in perfectly coiffed hair and nails that can’t have been manicured more than an hour ago. If I was portraying the face of London fashion, then I was doing a hopeless and embarrassing job. The goal of the trip though, wasn’t about socialising (delighted as I was to have been able to do so).

I was here about the medicine and St John’s is one of the most prestigious medical schools in India. With an enormous range of medical specialties and renowned doctors, I will forever be grateful for the knowledge I acquired during my time there. I wrote reams in my ring-bound notebook because almost every patient I came across had an ailment that was rare and intriguing compared to what I had seen back in England.

I saw patients with spleens the size of footballs, afflicted by tropical diseases that most UK doctors will never come across, young adults with advanced heart conditions that would often have been detected in early childhood with the advances of Western medicine and women who were reaching the end of their pregnancies, having never had a scan. It is both a difficult and an inspiring feeling watching medicine performed in a system so different to your own. India’s’ bigger cities are home to some of the best hospitals and doctors in the world but for poorer communities in more rural environments, healthcare can be both inaccessible and unaffordable.rural India villageMy time was mostly spent on the wards of the well-staffed and well-equipped St John’s Hospital in Bangalore but I did spend one week attached to a community outreach team, where a team of doctors, nurses and support staff go out in a van into small rural villages, setting up camp in schools or small buildings, converting them, just for a day or so, into makeshift clinics to provide health checks, such as basic ante-natal checks for the women of the village. I was impressed by the innovation and the initiative taken to try and tackle some of the barriers to healthcare faced in India. But I was also unable to forget how much, back in England and in the west, we can take for granted the system we have. I am well aware that the NHS has its flaws but we are fortunate to be in an environment, where regardless of our bank balance or location, we can almost always access healthcare.

I also observed the role of family members on the ward setting in India to be quite unfamiliar to that which I had seen at home. In England, the presence of family members on the ward often conjures up images of cards, magazines chocolates and questions for nursing staff. On the wards of St John’s, the presence of relatives is very much a necessity to provide ongoing basic care needs. Nursing staff are present but perhaps not in the way that we are used to in England and certainly I saw many patients depending upon family for bathing, cleaning and for their meals.community outreach van Bangalore medical college IndiaWhat I found most alien was the way in which patients over there generally treated their doctors like Gods. Literally. Some of the gestures offered by patients, when they walked into the clinic room, were akin to those seen in temples; having sat through endless communication skills lectures at medical school in London about the importance of being patient-centred, it was such an inexplicable paradox to see the patients themselves in India being so doctor-centred!

Their expansile gratitude permeated through the grey, hospital corridors and I had a hunch that morale among doctors in India may be higher, since they seemed to be practising in an environment where complaints and opportunistic medico-legal battles have not yet infiltrated the healthcare culture. But I accept this was eight years ago and things may have changed.

On my return flight to London, away from the clothes and gifts I brought back, I carried a melange of thoughts that weighed more than my laundry load. The experience had been educational, inspiring, challenging, motivational and at times, emotional but despite the moments of confusion and unfamiliarity, it left me with an irreplaceable insight into medicine in a different world and one which broadened my sense of perspective.

 

Travel Tuesday

30 thoughts on “A Medical Elective at St John’s Hospital, Bangalore, India

  1. What an incredible experience, one that sounds like it may shape you forever.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 9, 2014 — 8:46 pm

      Thanks Emma, it was a really fascinating trip and quite a meaningful one and I think you’re right, it probably did shape me and opened my eyes a lot.

      1. Hi, I am looking to spend some time at the same place. How did you get an opportunity at this hospital?

        1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) November 9, 2015 — 8:13 pm

          Hi Dhanya, I spent a couple of months there as part of my medical elective, which is standard in most UK medical schools (and we can usually select ourselves where we want to do our electives) but the way I arranged it was by writing a letter to the Dean of the medical school and they responded about how I make the subsequent arrangements.

          1. Thank Shikha,

            I have typed all up and it is ready to go 🙂 How long did they take to get back to you and have everything else set up? Did they arrange accommodation for you too?

  2. great post! The change in India over the last 15 years is amazing. I hope to visit Bangalore one day I think it’s one of the most interesting places in India if not what some might call the ‘real’ India these days. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 9, 2014 — 8:51 pm

      Thank you for the kind comments 🙂 I was certainly taken aback when I went there, as I’d always imagined India to be the smaller town experience I had seen before so it made me realise that India has so many other facets. I think Bangalore is evolving so quickly that it’s probably changed even since I last went!

  3. The contrasts of India never fail to amaze be. Thank you for a well-written and interesting read.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 9, 2014 — 8:53 pm

      I completely agree – the contrasts are just enormous and even though I had been there so many times, it wasn’t until this trip that I realised that for myself! Thank you for reading and for the kind comments 🙂

  4. francaangloitalian June 10, 2014 — 6:30 am

    Such an incredible experience the kind that will definitely mark you for life. I’ve never been to India but I know that it’s a country full of contrast and the more I read about it the more I realize how much it’s true.

  5. That’s so neat that you got an opportunity to really compare these two very different worlds in regards to medicine. I’ve never been to India but I’m so fascinated by it’s people and I loved your pictures.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 10, 2014 — 12:45 pm

      Thank you! The pics were taken in my pre digital camera days so I’m glad you still liked them! It is a fascinating country, full of contrasts and surprises and it was interesting to see that being the case even within medicine and healthcare. Thanks so much for commenting Madaline 🙂

  6. What a wonderful opportunity to experience such a different place and their views to medicine.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 10, 2014 — 12:47 pm

      Thank you for reading Kaelene – it was a really valuable learning experience that I’ll never forget.

  7. Love your style of writing and hearing more about India. One place I cannot wait to go to one day.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 10, 2014 — 12:49 pm

      Thank you so much for the kind words Bonnie! I hope you get a chance to discover India – it’s a place that really divides opinion but I always think is worth exploring to get a feel for why that is and making up your own mind about it 🙂

  8. That is impressive! I’m sure it was a culture shock and the experience of your lifetime!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 11, 2014 — 6:10 pm

      Thank you so much! It was definitely a culture shock but hopefully one that has given me a sense of perspective to help me in my professional life 🙂

  9. This is great stuff! Such a beautiful experience. Sure mustve have given you a different outlook towards so many things in life! Great exercise for the soul

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 12, 2014 — 3:54 pm

      Thanks so much for the kind comments – so glad you enjoyed reading 🙂 It definitely made me grateful for the small things but also made me realise the challenges of providing healthcare in the more rural parts of India. A real eye opener for the soul as you say!

  10. I’m always pleased to hear about the high quality of medical care in non-Westernized countries, because it breaks so many people’s concepts. We had the unique opportunity to experience medical care in Panama – even though it was from the patient’s point of view – and were suitably impressed. What priceless, enlightening experiences we’ve both had.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) July 2, 2014 — 8:06 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that you were satisfied with the patient experience in Panama – I’ve often been curious about what the healthcare system is like in that part of the world, as I know very little about it so it’s interesting to hear about your positive experience. Thanks so much for reading my post and commenting and I agree completely that a lot of people have pre-conceived notions about what healthcare must be like. Sure, it had its flaws but which system doesn’t?! 😀

  11. Hi there, just wanted to say that was a really interesting read – thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Myself and a friend are heading to St John’s in a few weeks and we’ll be sure to check out the community outreach while we’re there! I was wondering if you have any more recommendations r.e. things not to miss while we’re there – we’re attached to general medicine at the moment but maybe you’d have more info about which teams/consultants would be good to spend some time with etc.

    Thanks a mill,
    Ethan

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) July 2, 2014 — 8:27 pm

      That’s so exciting Ethan! I’ll send you an email with more information shortly! Thanks for reading 🙂

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  13. Shikha – what an incredible and rewarding experience. My family also is from India and I always come back to the London thankful for the NHS and regretting the times I’ve bemoaned it! I’ve volunteered at an eye camp in Punjab a few times but would love to go and volunteer elsewhere in India too.

    I’m always incredibly envious of my medic friends when I hear about their electives and the differences they feel they’ve made. Equally, I’m also really proud of them for going and making that difference to people who don’t have the access we have to medicine! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) April 13, 2015 — 9:19 pm

      Kam, I must thank you for such a kind and generous comment. It really made my day as the NHS and those of us who work in it often get the brunt of political and media criticism so it’s always lovely to hear positive comments and I’m glad you were able to relate to some of what I had written. It sounds wonderfully rewarding volunteering in the eye camps – what kind of work were you doing out there? Thank you again for reading and for sharing your own experiences here ☺

  14. Hi Shikha,
    This is a great blog post, I found it through the electives network as I am hoping to undertake my elective at St John’s next year. I’ve emailed the address on the electives network site but haven’t got a reply yet. Just wondering how you contacted them and how long it took them to get back to you? 🙂
    Rebecca

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) September 15, 2015 — 10:43 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words Rebecca and it’s great to hear you’re thinking of going to St John’s too – I had a great experience there and met so many fellow lovely students from around the world! Might be easier if I message you with more info – though bear in mind, I went back in 2006 so my info might not be that up to date! If you send me a message through the “contact me” page here on the blog, I’ll be able to email you directly back ☺

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