GP Life: Floating boat of medical hope

A partnership position need not be a bar to working in a developing country, as Dr Jane Crichton found out.

I first heard about the Amazon Hope medical boat through a BBC documentary 'Ferry up the Amazon', five years ago.

Last year, for two weeks, I joined one of the medical teams that treat villagers who live on the banks of the River Amazon - where poverty and the isolated location means that healthcare is usually extremely limited.

I had thought that a full-time job would bar me from working in another country, but I was able to use two weeks' annual leave to serve on the Amazon Hope. I enjoyed the experience so much last year that I went back again this year.

The Vine Trust was set up in 1985 with a small charity shop in Bo'ness, Scotland. The trust acquired its first boat, the Amazon Hope, in 2001,and sailed across it the Atlantic to South America, where it was adapted to function as a medical vessel, providing medical care for the local people.

The first UK medical team went out in 2004 and now there are 13 UK teams going out each year.

A team of eight would include doctors, dentist, nurses, a pharmacist and interpreters. The Ministry of Health in Peru supplies midwives, laboratory technicians and immunisation teams.

Regular visits by the medical teams not only allow identification and management of chronic problems such as asthma and diabetes but also identify secondary needs such as cataract and hernia problems which would otherwise go untreated.

On each trip, the boat spends two weeks on a tributary of the Amazon where people have difficulty in accessing healthcare. It aims to return to the same location every three months to provide a meaningful health service. The team lives on board and patients are seen in the air-conditioned hold. Common illnesses include malaria, dysentery and other infections, parasites and musculoskeletal problems.

The trust has recently acquired a second boat, the Amazon Hope 2, which is also equipped with an operating theatre.

It is a challenging experience, but it is not all hard work. We also had time to relax in hammocks on the deck, play volleyball with the locals and to teach ceilidh dancing to the Peruvian crew. The two-week trip can be extended to see other parts of Peru. Last year our team went on to see the Inca village of Machu Picchu.

Working on the Amazon Hope let me use my medical skills to help those disadvantaged because of their location and poverty. I came back to the UK with renewed enthusiasm for my work here.

- Dr Jane Crichton is a GP in Perth, Central Scotland

- For further information or to volunteer visit: www.vinetrust.org.

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