An experience of a lifetime

May 30, 2018

Would you like to travel to the Asia-Pacific and witness first-hand the life-changing work of Interplast’s dedicated volunteer medical professionals? Avant and Interplast have partnered to give one medical student the experience of a lifetime to see how this important work rebuilds lives.

Launched in 2013, the Avant and Interplast Student Placement Program has awarded one medical student member each year with the opportunity to witness Interplast’s inspirational work.

2017 program recipient, Julie Graham from James Cook University, Queensland, describes in her diary her inspiring experience in Tonga.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

The long-awaited day has arrived! My excitement for this opportunity has been steadily building for weeks and I’m eager to meet the Interplast surgical team I’ll be working with during my placement.

After category four Cyclone Gita tore through Tonga the week before, I was anxious about whether the trip would go ahead as planned— thankfully though I’m told we have the “all clear” to head over.

I’m warmly welcomed by the team (two plastic surgeons, two anaesthetists, two nurses and one physiotherapist) at Sydney Airport.

We board our five-hour flight and arrive at our accommodation at 2am in the morning. We’re pleasantly surprised to see that power has already been restored post-cyclone and promptly head to sleep knowing we have quite a day ahead of us.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Rise and shine! It’s an early start to the day as we head to Vaiola Hospital for clinic day, which is an opportunity for individuals to come into the hospital for a free consultation on medical issues that may require surgery (also provided at no cost to them).

As part of the team heads to theatre to set up for surgeries the next day, the rest of us pick up a chart from the mountainous stack and get to work.

It’s humbling to see so many patients, some who have travelled for hours to be seen, waiting patiently in the sweltering heat.

During the day, we hear about injuries sustained from Cyclone Gita. I’m amazed there were not more injuries from such a powerful cyclone and thankful this is the case. It’s remarkable to witness the strength of the Tongan community during this time.

I observe the doctors as they examine approximately 90 patients, all with different health problems and clinical presentations. During the consultations, I meet a beautiful baby boy, Kesomi, who presents with a significant cleft lip. He is prioritised for surgery the next day, along with others, as part of the triage process.

Friday 23 February 2018

My first day in the operating theatre is an incredible experience. I get to observe baby Kesomi’s cleft lip repair. After hearing about how his cleft has affected him, it’s fantastic that I get to observe his lip coming together so beautifully.

I also witness the closure of a wide cleft palate in the paediatric operating room. I couldn’t help but compare this child’s story with my own sister, who was also born with a cleft palate.

The challenges of a cleft palate to feeding, speech and development can be enormous, not only for the patient but for the entire family unit. It’s wonderful to see the closure, knowing how much this operation will change the child and family’s future.

Saturday 24 February 2018 to Sunday 25 February 2018

The day begins with early morning ward rounds to check on all the patients the team operated on yesterday. Once the ward work is complete, we catch a boat to go explore one of the small islands for the afternoon.

Although Cyclone Gita was strong, the Tongans are stronger. Clean up efforts around the island have been remarkable – in just one week the island is ready to welcome visitors back to snorkel around the local shipwreck. What a wonderful day of team building and snorkelling among some of the most beautiful fish I have seen!

Monday 26 February 2018

Surgery begins with a tendon reconstruction repair on a lady who sustained a laceration to her palm some time ago. She will require a subsequent stage two reconstruction during the next Interplast visit to Tonga.

Later that day I talk with Susan, the mother of Sione. Sione was born with polydactyly, which means he has extra digits on both his hands and feet. The operation to remove the extra digits goes very well. His mother tells me how grateful she is to the team for the surgery and how she looks forward to her son not having to endure difficulties later in life because of having extra digits.

During the surgical days I’ve been able to learn from incredible doctors and allied health professionals, who are all very willing to teach. I have gained knowledge in basic surgical techniques and was able to see some advanced pathology I likely would not have been able see in Australia.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Sadly, it’s time for me to fly back to Australia. This past week has been inspiring and I’m forever grateful to Avant for providing me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would highly encourage all students to apply for this program through Avant.

“As the saying goes, ‘there are some things you can never learn by reading a textbook’. This trip definitely showed me the things in medicine you cannot simply learn by reading but must rather learn through experiencing it.”

Julie Graham - 2017 Avant and Interplast Student Placement Program recipient

Download a copy of Julie's diary here