By Sophie Frankenthal
Like many other students, I spent the 2020-21 academic year in my bedroom. Naturally, I grew restless, and I decided that I’d need to pack my summer with extravagant adventure from start to finish in order to compensate for a year full of virtual classes and mundane, household chores. However, as much as I was longing for an exciting, invigorating, fun-filled summer activity, I have come to learn that in choosing how to spend the summers during one’s college years, it is imperative to maintain balance– balance between relaxation and productivity, between fun and growth, between giving and taking, and between living in the present and building toward one’s future. So, I set out for an adventure that would not only provide me with this balance, but which could also cater to the intersection between my passion for sociology and my desire to pursue a medical career
To start off the summer, I travelled to Israel for a period of two months and volunteered on an ambulance with Magen David Adom. This experience was phenomenal in the way it allowed me to gain hands-on medical experience whilst simultaneously giving back to my Jewish brothers and sisters and immersing myself in the rich heritage of our homeland. Additionally, it allowed me to gain insight into the Israeli medical system, which was an invaluable learning experience given the fact that I plan on making Aliyah in the coming years. Volunteering with MDA was truly incredible. I could honestly dedicate an entire article to it, but for now, I want to discuss Part Two of my magical summer.
The real highlight of my summer came during the last 3 weeks. I set out on a plane to Ghana (Western Africa) to volunteer in a medical capacity through a New-Zealand based organization called IVHQ. After spending a few days touring the capital city, Accra, I and 8 other volunteers from all over the globe packed into a crammed, sweaty tro-tro (minibus) and embarked on a 3-hour journey to the rural, mountainous village of Frankadua, where we would be living for the rest of our time in Ghana. We resided amongst a community of farmers and hunters, in an area without access to running water or completely reliable electricity. However, I grew to look forward to cold bucket showers and late-night walks to the outhouse. I loved waking up to the crow of a rooster (no, that isn’t just a movie thing), and being accosted by a flock of goats every time I carried anything that seemed like it could be food. Most of all, I loved the serenity and wholesomeness that accompanied such a simplistic lifestyle, and I loved the people who lived it. There was always an air of happiness, gratitude, and unity amongst the villagers, and to live amongst a people with so much appreciation for all aspects of life and the natural world was truly inspirational.
As a medical volunteer, I served a variety of roles in both Frankadua and many of the surrounding villages. Most mornings were spent in one of two local clinics, where I would typically perform basic triage and consultation services for the patients. Some of my tasks included measuring and recording vitals, verifying insurance policies, listening to patient symptoms, performing basic diagnostic tests, and even sometimes prescribing basic medications under the supervision of a clinic health professional. I was also fortunate enough to assist in the delivery of a couple babies and to observe some more advanced medical procedures. A couple days a week, rather than helping out in the clinic, we would travel to various schools in the region in order to provide basic first aid, sex education, and mass malaria testing and treatment for the students.
Arguably though, the most impactful aspect of our medical outreach took place in the afternoons, when we would ride throughout the various villages on motor bikes in order to make house calls to patients with severe wounds which needed constant maintenance. Most of the wounds we tended to, resulted either from cooking burns, motor-bike accidents, or machete cuts at the farm. Many of these wounds become exacerbated or infected very easily due to the poor and dirty living conditions in these villages, or due to the fact that the people can not afford the necessary treatments. However, we were also introduced to a terrible, flesh-eating wound that seemed to be endemic to the population. The individuals with this wound all claimed that it appeared out of nowhere, and they therefore deemed it a “juju wound”, or a wound that was inflicted by black magic. Upon further investigation though, and much consultation with the local health-professionals, we learned that in actuality, the wounds which we were seeing fall under the category of a particular type of ulcer that is caused by bacteria in the water in many parts of Africa- the Buruli Ulcer. Given this newfound knowledge, we are now raising funds to provide these villagers with access to proper testing and treatment.
Afternoon wound outreach was tremendous in that it allowed us to truly connect to and interact with the locals of Ghana. However, in truth, the best opportunities for meeting and learning from the locals took place during the times when we weren’t working. Every evening, after returning from our volunteer placements, we would all gather at the football/soccer field which was the social epicenter of Frankadua. Here, we would watch and participate in football matches between individuals of all ages, chat with the locals, and give the children endless piggyback rides. Night times were also filled with a vast range of cultural experiences such as drum circles, bon fires, dance parties at the pub, and impromptu ping-pong matches at the outdoor market. I formed genuine friendships with so many of the locals, and they taught me so much about their culture and livelihood in Ghana, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Of course, before travelling to Ghana, I was somewhat concerned regarding the challenges such a trip might pose to my religious lifestyle. However, Ghana is home to a wonderful Chabad family, and they graciously hosted me every Shabbat along with their community of Israeli expats, Chassidish goldminers, and other travelling individuals looking for a warm, Jewish environment – and maybe some challah and chicken soup as well. During the week, I managed with my own set of utensils, some “instant” meals, various fruits and vegetables, and a ridiculous number of eggs. Suffice to say, maintaining a religious lifestyle was not actually the biggest challenge of living in Ghana- nor were the bucket showers and power outages. Rather, the hardest part of being in Ghana was having to say goodbye to a community of locals who I have come to know and love so dearly, and whom unfortunately, I can’t know when or if I will next have the privilege of meeting again.
These past 3 weeks in Ghana have been truly life-changing, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to embark on such a rich, eye-opening adventure. I feel blessed that I had the ability not only to gain hands-on medical experience, but to do so in the framework of a completely different culture- the absolute perfect way to incorporate my medical goals and my passion for sociology. I feel lucky and humbled to have been able to positively contribute to the lives of people who are less fortunate than I. I hope that I can continue to help out from afar. But most of all, I am so thankful to the beautiful people of Ghana for opening their homes and their hearts to me, and for the tremendous ways in which they enabled me to grow through their endless love, happiness, and wisdom. They have shown me what it means to lead a genuinely meaningful and fulfilling life, and they have taught me to never take the little things in life for granted, because not everyone is fortunate enough to have even that. I pray that one day soon, countries like Ghana can achieve a point at which they no longer have a need for foreign volunteers. Until that day, I encourage anyone who has the ability, to leave the comfort of their Western homes and to go give to and learn from people who aren’t as privileged as they are- I promise you won’t regret it.