My student experience as a Biomedical Engineering Volunteer in Rwanda

Imagine leaving your home country and going to volunteer in a different country and hopefully you expect all to be ideal as it is back home. Working in a foreign country with a high level of language barrier, some cultural differences, and a reasonable politically different environment, was all new to me but worth an experience to have. All these couldnÔÇÖt stop anyone determined to save lives through saving medical equipment in hospitals of the Republic of Rwanda. Even the little work that could range from placing an equipment in the right place to repairing them and providing consultative services that would be used for future reference, saved some lives and hopefully we, as biomedical engineering scholars, have a big part to play in the healthcare systems of resource limited countries like Rwanda and all over the sub-Sahara Africa.

It was a requirement for me to have an internship during the recess term of my third year of study at Makerere University as a student of BSc. Biomedical Engineering. This internship was required to be done in a recognized healthcare facility or under an organization that does related work. Having had my recent internship at Mulago National referral Hospital as a sophomore, I preferred having my second internship outside Uganda. This was aimed at exploring a different working environment outside my home country and compare it.

It wasnÔÇÖt so long when I applied to be part of the Engineering World Health (EWH) Summer Institute (SI) 2016 in the Republic of Rwanda. EWH is a dynamic global organization serving engineering students, healthcare professionals, communities around the world and, most importantly, patients in need. It inspires, educates and empowers young engineers, scientists and medical professionals from more developed parts of the world to use their engineering skills to improve global health. It offers young professionals an eye-opening, life-changing experience that encourages life-long engagement with global health, and enables them immediately to provide meaningful service to patients in the developing world.
With the scholarship that I managed to get and after submitting in my applications, I was able to part of 2016 EWH SI in Rwanda. This was a two month voluntary program and involved a lot of activities which included but not limited to; having Ikinyarwanda and French lessons almost every morning, lectures about medical equipment technology and hospital visits which involved medical equipment repairs, user training, equipment management, inventory management and also providing consultative services to the different healthcare facilities that I visited. This program had participation of twenty students, some with an engineering background while others had a business background from countries like Uganda, Rwanda and USA. All had to come together for a common cause of improving the healthcare system of low resource countries like Rwanda through biomedical engineering service delivery.

Language lessons were meant to reduce that language barrier that was going to be experienced by all the participants of this program. They eased communication and enabled me and other students to learn a new language in addition to the new African culture that we experienced and learnt. Communication was greatly improved as it eased interaction with different hospital staff and patients and also enabled me get new friends. It also managed to increase on my vocabulary which was limited to English and Luganda only.

As an engineering student, I joined this program with great vigour to apply my engineering skills and knowledge to the solving of biomedical technological problems of hospitals in Rwanda through volunteering. Luckily enough, this vigour wasnÔÇÖt wasted because it was such a great experience that I fully utilized them whenever there was need to showcase what I had. Medical equipment repairs, maintenance, inventory management and user training were the main daily activities that were carried out during the two months. To a sum greater than almost everyoneÔÇÖs expectations, we managed to do a lot of repairs and every one was grateful for the work we did. Reporting for work was at 7:00am and ended at 5:00pm. Me and my co-worker who was also a SI student from USA plus the technician at one of the hospitals in western Rwanda, we were able to repair about 30 pieces of equipment with a kill rate of 0.74 in a period of one month. A number of medical equipment were repaired which included suction machines, oxygen concentrators, infant incubators and warmers, phototherapy lights, autoclaves, distillers, nebulizer, ophthalmoscopes, slit lamps, infant scales and dental chairs among others. These repairs were done with minimal costs that you could think about but in most cases there were no spare parts but we had to put the equipment back to use.

During the program, I also manged also to visit some of the youths village called Agahozo Shalom youth village. This is a youth village that was created to help and provide education to the children who are victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. At this place I had a chance to teach the science students how to solder in addition to teaching them all about pulse oximetry and assembling a pulse oximeter kit. This was aimed at inspiring the students to continue with science and love it and am grateful that I was part of the team.
At the end of the program I was able to exhibit effective communication with my fellow workers and supervisors in issues related to projects undertaken and work done; demonstrated and practiced good working ethics and internalized excellence; attested and practiced high-quality organizational skills in enhancing individual and group effectiveness and productivity; demonstrated creativity and innovation in solving problems related to biomedical engineering in a hospital environment and life sciences; exhibited pleasant interpersonal skills in developing understanding and appreciation of individual and cultural differences and interpersonal skills in building self-confidence; sometimes worked independently and was under very minimal supervision; demonstrated good planning, good management, constant monitoring and quality delivery of projects and work undertaken. This program also gave me confidence in the field of clinical engineering.

Despite all the experience and the fun that I had, there were some challenges that were faced which included but not limited to; lack of essential spare parts like filters, tubes and capacitors as these left most of the equipment not working. Financial constraints also affected me during this period. Language barrier was also great to some extent however much the lessons tried to reduce it but it was too short a period to be fluent in the new language. Lack of right tools to open some medical equipment due to the wide variety of manufacturers was a great challenge as we lacked enough and appropriate tool to cater for each and every medical equipment.

I conclude by encouraging young biomedical engineers out there and all the others who have the opportunity to participate in this kind of professional voluntary work to experience practical engineering abroad and outside their home country. This will greatly build our profession and also develop the healthcare systems of resource limited countries. It helped me understand and assess a supplementary part of my professional work expected out of me in future after graduation. The skills I acquired in the field, lectures I had and hospitals I visited were extremely enriching and embellished by a marvelous experience, largely unknown to me despite my origins. It also helped me discover and appreciate how engineers and other volunteers with different origins and cultural backgrounds come together to face problems and find solutions to them irrespective of the varied climates, cultures and cross borders that they have to meet.

(Thank you)
BRIAN MATOVU (BSc. Biomedical Engineering IV)