While most Australians were enjoying their Christmas lunch, medical student Scott Ashby was finishing a 26-hour shift at one of the world’s busiest trauma centres.
The stint in South Africa’s Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital – the third biggest hospital in the world – was part of a four-week placement Scott undertook for his UNSW Medicine degree.
Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year for the hospital, which serves more than three million residents in Soweto, among the poorest and most troubled areas of Johannesburg.
It is considered a valuable training ground for students interested in a career in trauma medicine, or for those heading to war zones, as 50% of all patients have stab or gunshot wounds.
Scott says he chose the placement, which he completed with fellow UNSW students Monish Maharaj and Ashleigh Xie, because he wanted to know if this kind of extreme medicine was for him.
“I felt seeing this area of medicine in Johannesburg would give me fantastic exposure, and a better idea of whether this is something I want to pursue,” he says.
More than 70% of all admissions to the hospital are emergencies, with the majority resulting from crime and traffic accidents.
“There is a never-ending queue of patients, so it was quite full-on, particularly at Christmas and New Year,” says Scott.
“There was one guy who'd been walking down the street on Christmas Eve and was randomly assaulted and stabbed four or five times – three in the back,” says Scott.
“But he wasn’t worried about the pain. He was just concerned about getting home in time for his kids. Unfortunately we had to tell him he needed to stay overnight,” Scott says.
The students’ role included doing rounds every morning and helping with jobs on the ward as well as working in the ‘pit’ – the renowned emergency room where patients are assessed and triaged.
“It looked like a war zone when you walked in, it was quite confronting,” Scott says.
“There were people with all sorts of crazy stab wounds, open head wounds that just had gauze on them, who had waited many hours to be seen.”
Scott says he learned a great deal during the placement.
“I helped with resuscitating patients after traumatic injuries, suturing cuts and gunshot wounds, and assisting on larger procedures.
“I've also learned a huge number of new procedures, how to use certain medications, and how to triage and prioritise injuries.
“At the hospital you went from being a student where you helped out a little bit, to being an integral part of the team,” he says.
With a keen interest in public health and health policy, Scott says he would like to complete a Master in Public Health at UNSW once he finishes his undergraduate studies.
Scott has made the most of university life, taking on the role of President of the MedRevue Society, and volunteering as a Yellowshirt O Week Leader and Events Director for UNSW Medical Students Society.
He has also worked for two years as a Resident Fellow at Baxter College, and as a UNSW student ambassador.
Scott is currently the Australian Medical Student's Association (AMSA) representative for UNSW and is convenor for AMSA's National Convention, the largest medical student conference in the world, which will be held in Sydney in July 2017.
He says the placement in Johannesburg has brought him greater awareness of the importance of policy and how resources are managed.
“We commonly ran out of basic equipment and needed to make do with what we had. The doctors were truly incredible though, and I'm thankful to have learnt from them,” he says.
The placement has also given him a greater appreciation for the quality of the medical facilities in Australia.
“We are very fortunate to not have the level of violence that there is in South Africa. It sounds clichéd but it does very much make you appreciate how well things work in Australia.”