From the Yukon to Zambia: Expedition Medicine, Pandemics and Global Solidarity.
This blog was originally published by British Exploring and can be read in its original format here.
In July 2019, I had the privilege of joining an expedition to the Yukon in Canada with British Exploring, as the chief medical leader. I am wearing the grey T shirt in the centre of the picture, and despite appearances, Greg our adventure leader (in the blue shirt) assured us we knew the way back to base-camp!
Volunteering was a great experience and I really enjoyed watching the young explorers develop both individually and as a group. I have great memories- singing around campfires, wild camping and bushwhacking our way through the wilderness. We were even lucky enough to see the Northern Lights towards the end of our adventure.
I think the expedition was particularly powerful as there were many young explorers from different backgrounds, but looking around the camp, everyone pulled together, and by the end it was as if everyone had known each other for years!
Being so remote, and getting back to nature, is a great way to escape from technology and the fast-paced life that we are accustomed to, and I think that this had a significant positive impact upon both the young explorers and also the leadership team.
Fast-forward a year and things could not be more different. This summer, I was due to be participating in the Hartz Scottish Explorers expedition, in the highlands near Ben Nevis. This was something I had really been looking forward to, but COVID 19 has presented us all with a new set of challenges.
Ironically, the technology and screen-time that we were all so eager to escape from, has now become a lifeline of sorts.
The Wildestan virtual expeditions, that BES has been running, is a great idea, allowing young people to interact and gain wilderness skills remotely, with the chance to test these skills in the future, something that is really valuable.
As lockdown cautiously lifts and we can get back outside, initiatives and peer support such as this will be really helpful in supporting the physical and mental health of young people. This summer, rather than working on expeditions, I have also been embracing technology to work remotely for the NHS COVID Clinical Assessment Service. This involves triaging and assessing patients that have been identified as potential COVID 19 patients and it has been really interesting and rewarding.
l am also the volunteer medical director for The Virtual Doctors, a UK based telemedicine charity. We have over 150 volunteer doctors, based in the UK and Zambia, who give up their spare time to provide remote medical advice to healthcare workers in rural Zambia.
We have worked alongside the Ministry of Health for over ten years and answered over 5000 cases. We have a range of specialists and GPs involved, who can give advice on a range of conditions, from snake bites and malaria, to diabetes, rashes and childhood illnesses.
With one doctor for every 12,000 patients and two-thirds of the population living in isolated rural areas, the healthcare system in Zambia has many challenges. To put this in context, in the UK we have 1 doctor for every 300 patients.
Telemedicine can therefore make a huge difference. I would like to tell you about one particular case involving a young boy who had been struck by lightning. This boy was seen at the rural health centre and his case was sent to one of our volunteer doctors, who is a burns specialist. He was able to give treatment advice, which included applying clingfilm to the boy’s burns and giving appropriate fluids to prevent dehydration. The boy was then transferred to the burns unit at Livingstone Hospital for definitive care. These first steps were vital in achieving a good outcome, and show the impact that our service can have.
With the emergence of COVID 19, we have launched our “Clean Water for Clinics” campaign, which aims to provide the 140 clinics that we support, with foot-operated wash stations, to improve sanitation and reduce the potential spread of COVID.
The supply of clean water, and the ability to wash our hands with soap, is something that we can easily take for granted, however this is not always possible for patients attending these busy clinics. You can see one of the wash stations, having just been set up, in the picture below.
We are still in the process of raising funds for the ongoing distribution of the wash stations and any donations towards our campaign would be gratefully appreciated. If you would like to donate please click here.
Water and sanitation is equally important when out on expedition. In the Yukon we set up similar, make shift hand-washing stations using old wooden furniture, crates, and rope.
These “Tippy Taps” are used extensively in humanitarian and low resource settings, and we were going to suggest having a similar set-up at the clinics in Zambia, until we discovered low-cost metal-framed alternatives which will hopefully be more durable in the long-run.
This is a great example of how something that we learnt about in an expedition context can be applied to the global pandemic, and it is an illustration of how our life experiences can equip us to manage future issues, even if we do not realise it at the time.
The same can be said about the pandemic we currently find ourselves in. Although there are obviously some fundamental differences, there are also many similarities between being in lockdown and being on expedition:
- It is not something that we are used to.
- We are outside of our comfort zones.
- We have a change to our normal routine.
- We might be stuck with the same people for a long time.
- We may have disagreements.
- We have much more time to think.
- It may affect our physical and mental health.
- We have to wash our hands much more often!
These are just some of the challenges that we may be experiencing, but at the same time we are developing skills that will help us moving forwards.
The unexpected opportunity to press pause has presented us with challenges, but has also given rise to a wave of global solidarity.
If we can harness this, the future of exploring our planet and the people that we share it with, will be more powerful and enlightening than ever before.