"When I Was In Malawi, I Felt Like I Was Truly A Doctor."
Updated: May 18
For most healthcare workers volunteering in low-resource environments, a bit of overwhelm is normal, even expected.
Dr. Vicki Mahan is not most healthcare workers.
A lifelong world traveler, cardiothoracic surgeon and educator, Dr. Mahan sought a volunteer placement in Africa to help people in areas of immense need. Her aspirations fit with the structure and goals of the Malawi surgical program with Physicians for Peace, and in mid-2022 she went to the sub-Saharan African country for a 3-month faculty position.
Once in the city of Blantyre, she hit the ground running. "In Malawi, they're doing everything in their power with the limited resources they have," Dr. Mahan says. "The biggest thing that outside individuals need to understand is, you don't go there and say, 'you're not doing it our way; therefore, it's wrong.'
“They are very innovative in Malawi, and fortunately, I've been in past situations where I've had to be innovative too."
As a hands-on faculty educator at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Dr. Mahan took to the leadership role naturally, teaching everyone from med students on up. As time went on and mentorships grew, so did trust and mutual respect. "I started stepping up to higher and higher levels in terms of expectations," she says. "I made it clear the surgical residents are the captain of the ship. I got the message across."
Her Malawi experience did fulfill the sense of reward she had craved in seeking volunteer work. "In the United States, you as a physician can become very frustrated," she explains. "The frustration is administrative in nature. There are way too many obstacles in the way to practice solid medicine without going beyond reasonable cost.
"I went into medicine for one very specific reason, and that has never ever changed: To help people. When I was in Malawi, I felt like I was truly a doctor; that the Hippocratic Oath really meant something."
She found that teaching and learning went both ways. "The people I met and worked with in Malawi are so smart and savvy about what's going on in the world outside Malawi," Dr. Mahan says.
"They're very honest in identifying the level where they are presently, and where they expect to be. …They're trying to figure out how to raise the bar, and they're doing one hell of a job in terms of becoming innovative, and how to get to the next level."
Most of her time in Malawi combined hands-on practice while teaching. Not only that, but she started a local judo program while in Blantyre (yes, she's also a fifth-degree black belt).
When she left Malawi, Dr. Mahan returned to her home judo club in Pennsylvania, where she teaches youths. "The kids were very interested in my experience, and the parents were listening as well," she recalls.
"I told the parents, 'This is something you need to expose your kids to, because what they're seeing in the United States is not the reality in much of the world. Just because we have resources in the U.S. doesn't mean other countries do.'
"We are here to help each other. That's the message I wanted to get across."
Hear from our Malawi team about working in surgery where resources, and surgical access, are way too scarce. Join our "Voices from the Field: Malawi" live Zoom event on Global Surgery Day, May 25 at noon. Registration is free—sign up here!