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patel

Patel studies health care in South Africa

The road less traveled takes Wofford student out of his comfort zone.

“We, as a more developed country, take for granted basic medical healthcare and supplies such as antibiotics or even a comfortable doctor-patient interaction,” says Dhruv Patel, a senior biology major and math minor on the pre-med track at Wofford.

He learned this lesson after spending a semester abroad with the SIT South Africa program. He studied health and social policies created by the South African government and how these compare to American initiatives.

Patel, as part of the program’s Capstone course, spent his final month shadowing doctors at the hospital in Manguzi, which is located near the border of Mozambique. The hospital, located in a rural area, serves thousands of people every year but faces constant shortages of both supplies and staff. Patients also frequently grappled with lack of basic amenities required for treatment.

“Some of the most prevalent illnesses we saw were HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. Through the government, the hospital could provide patients with the medications, but the doctors couldn’t prevent them from stopping treatment because they lack things like running water or food,” says Patel. “As much as the doctors tried their best, sometimes they just couldn’t help. It was hard to come to terms with this fact as patients would return and start the process all over again.”

Patel also spent much of his time at the Manguzi Hospital working with children. Here, says Patel, the barriers within South African healthcare were glaringly obvious.

“The kids we saw didn’t really understand what was happening. The language barrier really inhibited communication. Most patients either spoke Zulu or other tribal dialects. The doctors spoke English,” says Dhruv. “Also, many times the parents were very attached to their culture and were in favor of the herbal or spiritual side of treatment rather than trusting medical guidance.”

As a result, Patel saw patients return for illnesses that are usually mild.

“Kids would be admitted in fairly decent condition with simpler illnesses like the stomach flu or something that usually is easily treated,” says Patel. “Because of the many barriers between the patients and the doctors, however, more severe secondary illnesses often developed. These would sometimes cause the child to die.”

Despite the harsh realities that Patel was exposed to, he is grateful for his time abroad. Through the program, Patel also took an intensive course in Zulu that allowed him to converse with many of the patients.

“Some pre-med students become so fixated on the hard sciences that they don't see the social aspects of medicine and healthcare,” says Patel. “This experience was so rewarding because I got to see this other side, which is about communication and cultural awareness and understanding. Learning Zulu helped me to realize that you have to have these relationships with your patients in order to adequately diagnose them.”

Patel urges other pre-med or science students to consider this study abroad program because of its cultural immersion and ability to broaden perspectives. 

“Returning, it was hard to transition back into Wofford life because I had experienced such mental wear and tear abroad. My classes abroad pushed me towards constant reflection and introspection, which was challenging, but helped me to consolidate my thoughts and has allowed me to convey who I am,” says Patel, who offers the following advice for students interested in the SIT program.

“Never expect to settle down. You will be constantly moving and plans will constantly be changing,” he says. “Between the communication barriers, the home stay, the culture and food differences, even the classes that I took — I stayed out of my comfort zone. It was so rewarding and will be integral in my future medical career.”

Since 2007, over 2200 Wofford students have studied abroad in 70 countries. The Office of International Programs offers over 50 different programs through SIT, the School for International Training, whose programs often are located in lesser travelled-to countries such as Uganda, Ecuador, South Africa and India. SIT focuses on experiential learning in regards to critical issues such as global health, sustainable development, or human rights. For more information on study abroad programs, visit http://www.wofford.edu/internationalprograms/ and to schedule an advising appointment visit http://www.wofford.edu/internationalprograms/content.aspx?id=37898

by Kelsey Aylor ’18