An Unstoppable Force for Change in Malawi
For the past couple months, no matter how her day in the busy Malawi hospital has gone, Dr. Alphonsina Ndembera leaves work smiling.
"Since I got this scholarship, I walk out with a glow on my face every day," says the third-year anesthesia resident. "I'm genuinely happy and so grateful."
Alphonsina is referring to the Physicians for Peace scholarship for anesthesia and surgical residents, given to dedicated young doctors in Malawi like her, who want to fill the chronic shortage in specialists in those areas. A country of 19 million, Malawi has just six practicing anesthesiologists.
"I first heard about the Physicians for Peace scholarship from two colleagues who received it," Alphonsina says. "I always envied them, because it's one of the best scholarships I've seen."
It covers professional fees and memberships, coursework, exam fees and travel costs, a laptop, a cost-of-living stipend and Internet charges—crucial for accessing online textbooks. Alphonsina learned in December she'd been chosen for the competitive scholarship. "I was not expecting it and was very, very grateful."
Throughout her life, Alphonsina has supported herself and funded her own education. During a difficult childhood, losing her mother at age 7, she was driven to excel in school so she could one day provide a more comfortable life.
She considered being a nurse like her mother, aunt, and grandmother, but her father convinced Alphonsina she was capable of becoming the family's first doctor.
After graduating medical school and completing her internship, Alphonsina was placed in Nsanje, in Malawi's southernmost tip—"one of the rural districts very far from civilization"—serving as district medical officer, overseeing all clinical activities in the district.
"If there was anything happening in the health center, or the main district hospital or community hospitals, I had to be in control," she says. "It was a huge responsibility, and I was young—but I did that for four years."
During that time, she saw firsthand how Malawi's shortage of anesthesia providers impacted the people.
There was usually just one in her entire district. "So if he fell sick or had other things to do, we would have none." The alternatives were to ask a neighboring district if their anesthesia provider could come help (a rare option) or, more frequently, send the patient on an hours-long trip to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.
"I can’t quite remember how many deaths or complications we had, transferring patients from the district to the central hospital—just for a procedure that could otherwise be done in the district," Alphonsina says. "But there were many. ...
"The main reason I became interested in anesthesiology was: I saw the need. We have six anesthesiologists in the whole country. So there is a huge gap, and we have to fill it one person at a time. I thought I could be one of them."
Determined, Alphonsina started her anesthesia residency in Blantyre despite daunting obstacles. The cost of her education—with associated fees, international travel for exams, and more—ate up her humble resident's salary.
Despite the challenges, she cleared a notoriously difficult hurdle in December, passing the written and clinical exams by the College of Anesthesiologists of East, Central and Southern Africa (CANECSA). She was subsequently accepted into its fellowship.
Then, Alphonsina got word she'd earned the Physicians for Peace scholarship. The news overwhelmed her. "The biggest thing it's done for me is give me comfort," she says. "I can just study!
"I know I can buy air time (Internet access), so I can browse and get important information. Apart from my textbooks, I love having access to up-to-date research online.
“I'm able to have adequate food and basic things like that, and be comfortable while doing my studies, which I didn't have. Before, by the third week of the month, I'd be almost broke and have to start looking for where to get food, how to get money for Internet and all the other things I need," she says. "Now, I can forget about that and just concentrate on my work. That means the world to me."
Though it hasn't been long, she adds, "I already enjoy being part of the Physicians for Peace family!"