Jatinder volunteered with PHASE in March 2019. Following his involvement in developing a new transgender healthcare model in Manchester, Jatinder decided to seek out new opportunities to develop his career, whilst using the skills he had acquired as a GP to support communities with limited access to healthcare. After a lot of searching, he found PHASE and was impressed by our integrated development model. Jatinder was accepted onto our volunteering programme and spent eight days supporting local health post staff in a village in Mugu. Now back in the UK, Jatinder shares his volunteering experiences, as well as some helpful advice for any potential volunteers.
The PHASE Worldwide conference last February was a good starting point. I got to meet other GP volunteers and hear some first-hand experiences from Nepal. It was also an opportunity to meet Dr Gerda Pohl who is one the founding members of PHASE and manages the GP volunteer programme. At the conference, I was provided with the details of where I would be travelling to inside Nepal.
The WhatsApp group set up by former volunteers provided useful, practical tips on how to apply for a visa, how to get a local sim card in Nepal and which travel essentials to take along.
Arriving in Kathmandu and the Briefing in Bhaktapur
I remember looking out of the plane window and being in awe of the snow-covered peaks of the majestic Himalayas as the flight neared Kathmandu. I had already applied for the visa online, which provides you with a token number valid for two weeks from the day of your application. Getting the visa stamp at the airport only took about five minutes. Leaving the airport on the other hand, took a lot longer.
PHASE Nepal’s head office is located in Bhaktapur, about 30 minutes from Kathmandu by taxi, depending on the traffic. A day before we were due to travel to the project site, all GP volunteers had the opportunity to meet the staff from PHASE Nepal, along with Dr Gerda Pohl, for a briefing on which project sites each of us would be travelling to and which health supervisors and ANM’s we would be mentoring and staying with. I was going to Sipa, in the Mugu district of Western Nepal. The flights are usually confirmed last-minute due to unpredictable weather conditions in the local area.
The Journey to Sipa
I travelled in the pleasant company of another GP volunteer and a PHASE Nepal staff member from Kathmandu. Checking in for our flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj was probably the quickest I have ever been through airport security. We flew from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj and then to Talcha airport, where we continued by road to Sipa.
The journey from Talcha Airport to Sipa was a bit daunting at times. The narrow dirt road follows the Mugu branch of the river Karnali through some beautiful valleys. We arrived in Sipa late afternoon and there was a multi-agency meeting in progress when we got there. My general impression, from what little I could understand with my knowledge of Hindi, was overall praise and positive feedback on the work PHASE was doing in the local community.
The Daily Routine
The PHASE staff lived in a traditional stone and tin house, which I shared with them for the next eight days. All the healthcare staff (the health supervisor, ANMs and the social mobilisers) were very welcoming and I have to express my sincere gratitude to all of them for being such good hosts and looking after me so well in an environment which was new to me. The house had a small basic kitchen with a gas stove, and two bedrooms.
You have to be prepared for a different way of life. Amenities are very basic, with a squatting Indian toilet and no bathroom. We went for a bath in the river on Saturday when the clinic was closed. I asked for boiled water to shave with, which I did every couple of days to avoid growing a long beard.
The usual routine is waking up around 6:30am, having tea or coffee with biscuits and breakfast, usually rice with lentils (dal bhat) and vegetables. We would have our breakfast together sitting on the kitchen floor just before 9am and then get ready to go to the clinic (or community visits, depending on the day). The walk to the clinic was short and followed a winding dirt road across a small stream of water. The clinic itself was a basic, two-room stone and tin structure; it was once used as a school but has now been converted into a health post. It had a basic supply of medicines, some provided by the government and some supplied by PHASE.
The clinics can vary in terms of how busy they are; some days can get very busy and some days can be very relaxed. It became very clear to me from the beginning that this was an environment in which you must rely on your medical school basics. Reaching a diagnosis with limited investigatory methods (apart from temperature, pulse, blood pressure, oxygen levels and a stethoscope) was tricky and difficult. The PHASE ANMs seemed pretty good at formulating a working diagnosis with limited resources. I spent my time in the clinic trying to build on their patient history taking and examination skills as these were the best tools they had in this environment.
Evenings and Downtime
The clinic finishes between 4:30pm and 6 pm, we would then make our way home and usually have a small snack like some noodles or egg-fried rice with tea. There can a bit of downtime between getting home and eating dinner. The village I was based in has no internet and very limited mobile signal, so it is useful to have a book to read. Speaking Hindi, I was able to converse well with the PHASE staff. We spent our time having conversations or listening to some Hindi and Nepali music in the evenings. Dinner is usually followed by teaching. When planning sessions, it is better to come equipped with some shared understanding as to which topics the ANMs would like to cover and what you feel would be relevant based on your clinic observations.
Goodbye and the Journey Back
The day I left Sipa was a National holiday on account of the festival of Holi. We started the day with a brief Holi celebration and applied some colour to each other’s faces, before I got on the Jeep back to Gamgadhi. My eight days of volunteering was over, it was great to witness the amazing work PHASE is doing to support communities like Sipa. I have learned a lot from this experience and I hope that my stay will have helped PHASE continue to provide better healthcare to the local community. I had the opportunity to visit Rara lake before my return to Kathmandu, which I would definitely suggest making an effort to visit as it is absolutely serene there.
For more information on our GP Volunteering Scheme, please read our Volunteering in Nepal page.