Life changing experience on the Amazon River for Derry student

Blanaid with one of the children she looked after.
Blanaid with one of the children she looked after.

A trip fraught with danger and full of adventure is one which medical student Blanaid Canavan from Northland Road will never forget

It was a trip where she had no clean water, fought a daily battle with huge insects and risked her life by jumping into the river to save the village children’s football.

The Derry medic has decided to become a paediatrician

The Derry medic has decided to become a paediatrician

But for final year medical student Blanaid Canavan, the six weeks she spent in Peru this Summer, living on a medical boat which travelled along the Amazon River, are an experience she’ll never forget.

Twenty-three years-old Blanaid is in her last year studying medicine in Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia.

For her medical elective the Derry medic had to spend six weeks working abroad - so she headed to the Amazon River to work on a travelling medical boat serving different communities each day.

Her home for the six weeks was the boat ‘Esperanza’ where she shared living quarters with 14 other medical students, one local doctor, one dentist, and a guide who could speak Spanish and English.

Blanaid extracting a tooth.

Blanaid extracting a tooth.

“Each day we had clinics in the largest building available in the village that we stopped at that day,” she explained. “The villages were on the edge of the Amazon, to the front was the river, and behind the village was the rain forest. The natives lived on fish, bananas, rice and plantaine. There was no electricity and most children did not have shoes.”

She revealed that the most common ailments they had to treat were parasites caused by dirty drinking water, and malaria.

“The people lived from the river- they cooked, drank, washed and swam in the river. In the clinic, we gave everyone medication for parasites as the water they were drinking was contaminated. I saw children with malaria, and some with big distended stomachs from malnutrition and parasites. “

Although Blanaid took GCSE Spanish at Lumen Christi College, she decided to do a three month refresher course, a move she believed helped her communicate with local people.

Blanaid with some of the children who live along the Amazon river.

Blanaid with some of the children who live along the Amazon river.

But normally being used to a hospital environment, life on the river with little access to medical equipment made the experience a steep learning curve.

“It was difficult because we couldn’t order x-rays, bloods or imaging,” she said, “We had only one senior doctor and if you didn’t speak Spanish, communication was difficult.

“There was often a lack of medication and if a treatment you needed had run out you had to think of an alternative. If that had run out you had to think again. It was important to help the people while you were there because it could be another month or even a year before another medical boat came by.”

During the trip the medical students left toys and games with the children in the village but one of the most sought after items were toothbrushes.

Inside one of the villages.

Inside one of the villages.

“The children had a lot of cavities,” she said, “none of them had toothbrushes and didn’t know how to use them. I had to extract a tooth myself when I was there.

“We gave them a ball and while we were playing the ball got thrown into the water. Without thinking I dived into the Amazon to get it. It was a part of the river where two sides were merging into one so the water was really fast. I managed to get my hands on the ball but couldn’t get myself back to the boat. Eventually I had to be rescued. But I clung on to the ball.”

And living on the boat was no picnic either.

“There were huge bugs,” she said. “They had us up all night scratching. In the morning we’d compare the marks on our legs. It was quite an experience staying in a boat on the Amazon. Not only did you have to cope with the millions of mosquitoes, ants, and spiders- there were only two toilets on board and a cold shower that used the water from the river so it wasn’t clean. One night I left my bedroom door open with the light on and there was a giant insect the width of the door, waiting for me on my return- it was terrifying!

“Being on the river with no mobile phone signal wasn’t easy either. We are so used to having wifi all the time. I had to use the satellite phone to ring home and get my exam results. My friend was using her Iphone to take pictures and she accidentally dropped it in the water.

“The children loved having us there. They really liked my friend with red hair because they had never seen anyone with red hair before.”

Now back at home Blanaid is considering going in paediatrics when she finishes her studies next year.

“I got some great hands on experience as the children were so good. When you asked them to do something they just did it.

“Once when I was painting a little girl’s finger nails I noticed that part of her finger was gone. When I asked her what had happened she just said ‘machete.’

“I think when I’m qualified Id like to go back to the Third World and work. My mum spent five years in Ethiopia working as a water engineer so I’d like to follow in her footsteps.

“Now I’m home I think the thing I am most thankful for is our clean water. We probably just take it for granted but it’s so important.”

The Derry student says she has many highlights from the trip including lying relaxing on a hammock watching the sunset, watching the stars (and shooting stars) at night from the rooftop of the boat, hugging the little children and playing with them the in clinic and jumping off the very top of the boat into the Amazon.

“The experience underlines how many advances in medicine we have to our benefit and how lucky we are to have such a good health service,” she said.