When ophthalmologist Dr Sachin Bawa chose to spend a few days in 2019 volunteering at Tintswalo District Hospital, a 423-bed public hospital located in Acornhoek in Mpumulanga, it was because he wanted to give back to one of South Africa’s more vulnerable rural communities.
Since then, he has returned to Tintswalo twice more, and will continue to volunteer his skills and services when he can.
“It’s a richly rewarding experience,” says Dr Bawa. “Each time we volunteer, my colleagues and I spend a few days performing check-ups at the clinic and cataract surgeries at Tintswalo hospital, and when we leave, we know we’ve made a meaningful difference to the local community.”
The community is so excited when ophthalmologists volunteer at Tintswalo and the local clinic that they sing when the doctors arrive.
“Cataracts cause blindness, but they’re reversible, which means we can make a meaningful impact to not only our patients but their families and communities as well,” says Dr Bawa. “Patients who arrive for their surgeries must be supported by family members because they can no longer walk by themselves. A day later, they walk out unaided, with the renewed gift of sight. It’s a very different experience to private practice.”
The larger community impact is also important to volunteers like Dr Bawa. “Cataracts prevent younger people from working, and they make the elderly a burden on their families because someone has to remain home to care for them. Overall, the economic impact is large. The ability to assist in this way – and to have such a far-reaching effect on the local rural community, is incredible.”
Creating a community of volunteers
Volunteers such as Dr Bawa are made possible because of the Tshemba Foundation, a local, non-profit organisation that not only attracts doctors and medical specialists to the area, but also ensures that they have somewhere to stay while they give back to the community.
“Tintswalo and its various clinics are off the beaten track, which is one of the reasons why there is always a need for more doctors and specialists,” says Barbara McGorian, CEO of the Tshemba Foundation.
Combining luxury and comfort with giving back
In 2014, the founders of the Tshemba Foundation recognised the impact that rural isolation was having on Tintswalo and hospitals like it. “You can’t solve the problem of a rural hospital being so far away from schools or cities,” says McGorian. “But you can create an ecosystem that encourages volunteers to spend time in the area, adding to the doctors on call and sharing their experiences with local doctors and specialists. One of the challenges of being isolated is that you aren’t sharing ideas and experiences in the same way as more centralised hospitals and practices, where doctors have broader networks.”
The Tshemba Foundation’s solution was elegantly simple. It used the bushveld setting and isolation of Mpumalanga as an advantage, building a luxury lodge, Tshemba Lodge, which sleeps between 9 and 18 doctors at a time to provide the ultimate ‘Leave of Purpose’ for doctors looking to volunteer and add value to patients who could benefit the most from their areas of speciality.
“Every time I’ve volunteered at Tintswalo I’ve returned home feeling grounded and reset. Even though we’re working the entire time, the lodge and its surroundings actually unstress you, and the overall experience really gives you perspective and gratitude. It’s a deeply humbling experience,” says Dr Bawa.
COVID-19 has heightened a need for purpose
Dr Bawa and doctors like him who volunteer are stepping out of their comfort zones, but it’s all in the name of living one’s purpose.
“We’ve seen this even more since the onset of COVID-19,” says McGorian. “Many specialists haven’t been able to practice as much as they did pre-pandemic, but they’re still driven to contribute to their communities.
“Tshemba was built on the premise that if we give doctors a place to stay, they will come because they want to give back. Most doctors are driven by an incredible sense of purpose. They care about people. But they don’t always know how to volunteer or where to volunteer. At Tshemba, we take this a step further because we want to reward the sacrifice of time that our volunteers are making, and so they live for free in what’s comparable to a five-star lodge, except that they are responsible for their own meals.
“Each night at the communal dining area, doctors from as close as Johannesburg or as far away as the UK, the Netherlands or even New Zealand and Australia meet each other and share their stories. And then the next day they get to help members of the most vulnerable communities and share and swap insights and skills with doctors who work under these conditions every day.
“It’s humbling, but it’s also deeply rewarding, as we’ve seen by how many of our volunteers return. At Tintswalo, every doctor who volunteers contributes so much, whether it’s through patient care or enriching the lives of doctors and nurses, or simply sharing how to improvise without having the correct machines on hand. Our volunteers change lives – including their own,” says McGorian.
Book your #LeaveOfPurpose today
While the Tshemba Foundation’s volunteer programme is best suited for longer stays, there are short-term opportunities available that can accommodate busy schedules while still maximising the impact of volunteering at Tintswalo and the local clinics in the area.