GP interview: Working with vulnerable children in Uganda

Voluntary work in Africa led Dr Tom Heyes to begin a master's degree.

Dr Heyes with one of the children sponsored by the Global Care in Uganda

What prompted you to take a master's in public health and international development?

My wife, Barbara, and I became involved in supporting a Coventry-based Christian charity, Global Care, which works with local staff and organisations in many countries to help the most vulnerable children.

When offered the chance to take our youngest son to visit Uganda and meet the girls we were sponsoring, we didn't have to think twice.

Global Care asked me to look into the healthcare the children were receiving in connection with the HIV epidemic, and a team of us visited several health facilities and talked to staff and patients.

When I realised the problems poor families face, trying to access an inadequate, fragmented and corrupt healthcare system, I wanted to understand what could be done to improve matters.

I was considering whether to work in primary care in Africa myself, so felt that studying public health and international development would give me a more informed perspective.

What did your course involve?

In 2010 I started a master's in public health in international development at Sheffield University. This is an innovative course run by the department of geography in conjunction with the School of Health and Related Research, with contributions from other departments.

I gained better understanding of international development generally, and public health in particular, plus the local and global factors that affect it.

I realised my medical 'education' had been largely about learning facts, with a little critical thinking about research. Reading and writing in social sciences, politics and economics made me realise what an eclectic discipline geography is and stretched me mentally.

I enjoyed making friends with students from around the world, although most were much younger than me. Highlights of the course were a field trip to the Pokot people of north-west Kenya, where I did qualitative research on how people used both traditional and modern healthcare systems, and the final placement to conduct research for my dissertation.

For this, I went to Soroti in Uganda, to study the situation of children with disabilities. This fitted with Global Care's project to help these children access schooling.

I spent six weeks at the children's centre and visited local homes and communities, speaking to the children and their families and carers as well as to some professionals who were working with them.

The families were very poor and under great stress and many children experienced discrimination and abuse. I was able to feed back my findings in public meetings and the discussion led to changes in the project and to setting up some disability action groups for local people.

How did you fit all this in with your busy day jobs?

I studied part-time over two years, reducing my hours to seven sessions a week, as I did not want to jettison my other interests (family, church, hockey, ceilidh band).

It still involved late nights and weekends when deadlines were looming. I work part-time in New Hall women's prison and part-time in a GP practice, and my employers were helpful with leave.

I took some unpaid leave and used some annual leave for the six-week placement. At times, insights gained from my studies and travels can be useful in my day-to-day work, particularly with migrants. I certainly appreciate the values of the NHS.

Tell us more about your current trip to Uganda

Barbara and I have just made our fourth visit to Uganda. It is a beautiful country and people welcome visitors; we have made good friends.

We are also motivated by the hope that we can help bring about improvements, particularly in how children are cared for. When you see children with AIDS struggling to obtain medical care, and young people with disabilities who have to fight for the right to education and training, you want to help.

We travel at our own expense and have received help with fundraising for items for use in Uganda from our church, workmates and friends. Several of our friends sponsor children through Global Care, which is a great way of providing the committed support that is needed to help a vulnerable child grow and thrive.

What did you and your wife do while on this visit to Africa?

We visited Rukungiri to work with Global Care in exploring how to help children with disabilities and those affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as some team development work and training. They took us to schools, homes and prisons, because in Uganda, children are often imprisoned with their mother.

Then we caught up with the team in Kampala and travelled on to Soroti to see how the work was progressing there.

How do your trips affect you and your practice?

Each visit has a strong impact. I become more aware of the challenges we face to live on this planet with justice and peace, and more sick of the greed, neoliberalism, colonialism and sense of superiority in the west as it seeks to dominate and exploit.

I become more motivated to work with people who are poor and socially excluded and to show respect, understanding and compassion. I know I have a long way to go and admire those who have given themselves to this work heart and soul.

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