After a long journey to the other side of the globe, I was finally in Sri Lanka. It was 1:00 am when I landed then I arrived at my lodging at 4:00am. I had 4 hours to sleep and be ready to work! When I woke up to monkeys howling and playing in the trees 20 feet away, I knew I would like this place.
I was excited and nervous to start my global health rotation at Karapitiya Teaching Hospital. Despite the fact that the University of Ruhuna Faculty of Medicine is conducted in English, there is still quite the language barrier with the Sri Lankan version of English and the amount of slang that we unknowingly use. Even the everyday medical language and abbreviations varies between the US and Sri Lanka. I wasn't sure how this would pan out when I arrived on the medicine ward.
Three of us are here in Sri Lanka from the Duke Physician Assistant Program. Since Duke University and the University of Ruhuna Faculty of Medicine have an established relationship in medicine and research, many of the professors and researchers were very welcoming to us. We met with Professor Ariyananda, the Senior Professor of Medicine, and he was quite excited to bring us to Grand Rounds and introduce us to his faculty and fellow consultants before we got started the next day.
The next day, we began clinical activities on the women's internal medicine ward, where we spent the week. We met with the Senior Registrar (similar to our Chief Resident) and she hurried us to the first patient to begin morning rounds. It was definitely intimidating on the first day while rounding with their equivalent of residents and attending.
After a few days, I was able to understand how the ward works to admit patients, complete investigations and diagnostic assessments and carry out a treatment plan. There are many similarities, but a greater number of differences between the US and the Sri Lankan inpatient wards. The overall appearance of the ward and staff, the admitting process itself, and the types of illness and their treatment protocols are notably unique.
When I first walked onto ward 11, I noticed there were more patients than beds, with some patients lining up with their belongings on the floor or with a make-shift mattress on the ground in the hallway. Some privacy is maintained with green curtain that can be drawn to a close, though this greatly reduces the air circulation and increases the already hot temperatures found on the ward.
Another distinct difference between the US and Sri Lankan hospitals is the admitting process. Patients can only be admitted to a ward on Casualty Day. While casualty typically means trauma or catastrophic event, here in Karapitiya Hospital, it simply means acute care. Each ward has its own Casualty Day, rotating every 5 days, so on any given day there is at least one medicine ward holding a Casualty Day. It's quite obvious which ward is having their day because the hallway outside the ward is lined with sick people waiting their turn to speak to a House Officer (intern). Because Sri Lanka has a public health system, and Karapitiya is a public teaching hospital, patients are first seen at their local community health clinic or rural hospital and if their illness is deemed to be beyond the capabilities of the small hospital or clinic, they are referred to the teaching hospital. The patient brings their diagnosis card to the House Officer- a laminated square paper with their personal identification information, their chief complaint, lab work if done, and treatment to date. The House Officer is the first to speak to the patient; they do a complete history and determine if they need to be examined or treated outpatient. If they are in need of an exam, they proceed to the line for the single admitting bed where the Junior House Office and/or Senior Registrar (residents) examine the patient. They will determine whether the patient gets assigned a bed or follows up with outpatient treatment. Unless the patients’ illnesses warrants a longer stay, most patients are typically released to outpatient care after 4 days- just in time for the next Casualty Day.
When admitted to the hospital, patients must bring their own medical record, clothing, toiletries, pillow and blankets. The hospital only provides one pillow case and one blanket which are typically used to cover the bed. Visitors are only allowed between 1-5pm, though one person is allowed to stay at all times.
Needless to say, patients who get admitted here are very ill. We have seen many patients with Dengue and Typhoid fever, severe heart murmurs, and strokes. Many of these illnesses are quite advanced at the time of initial evaluation. There was one patient who had such a loud heart murmur that it took me a minute to realize that it was her mitral valve making all that noise and not her breath sounds! I've never heard such a loud, distinct murmur in my training. When I felt for her apical pulse, it was as though her heart was punching my hand through her ribs. Thankfully, the patients here are accustomed to medical learners examining and questioning them every day, so it was nothing new for me to listen and palpate myself. In fact, these patients have a crew of consultants, house officers, registrars, medical students and nurses rounding on them daily.
Another interesting difference that struck me was the absence of beeping monitors and other technology on the wards. Vitals are obtained manually at regular intervals and charted on a paper above the patient's bed. There were no oxygen tanks hooked up for the COPD patients, no controls to adjust the hospital bed for comfort and certainly no television sets. The physicians and students are heavily reliant upon their physical exam skills. It was impressive how well these physicians could hear breath and heart sounds with all the background noise and conversations amongst providers. I hope I will be able to acquire this same level of competency in my physical exam!
I can already tell that I will learn a great deal here in Sri Lanka, both culturally and medically. I'm grateful to have already seen so many tropical diseases that are rare or non-existent in my hometown. This will certainly prove beneficial for future international aid work. Also, learning about the public health system and adapting to the difference in technology will allow me to be a better global practitioner. In the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will also participate in pediatrics, OB/Gyn, community medicine and surgery. There will be many interesting patients and experiences to come!