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Treatments in the Tropics

March 20, 2014

Living on an island with only one hospital, three doctors, terrible roads and a single ambulance, the local population of Principe are just as likely to rely on traditional healing methods as on modern medicine if they have a health problem.  More unusually, however, I noticed that the European expats living in town weren’t too keen on visiting the hospital either.


A fall off a motorbike, a sprained ankle, sun stroke, food poisoning…for the expats on Principe, none of these seemed to warrant medical attention. They would rather pass their precious medical supplies among themselves and tend their own wounds, than venture into the hospital.


I soon found out why.


A week into my stay, Simon injured his knee and unlike almost everyone else on the island, he decided that seeking a doctor’s advice might be in order. Accompanying him to the hospital, I had the opportunity to see first-hand why the expats were wary of going there.

After climbing (Simon limping) up a steep and crumbling staircase to reach the main door of the hospital - the only entrance if you are not arriving by motorbike, (and I say motorbike, not ambulance, due to the fact that the ambulance is usually being misappropriated as a taxi elsewhere) a 3 hour wait ensued, during which I watched the proceedings with a sort of horrified fascination...


We were waiting outside one of the consulting rooms. It had its door open so we could see all the comings and goings. The doctor was very determinedly wearing his latex gloves as he took blood samples from patients. The whole time I was watching (did I mention it was for 3 hours?) he never took those gloves off or changed them, or washed his hands.

I watched while he took a short break… a little wander outside. I watched while he ran his (gloved) fingers over the hospital railings, where a thousand grubby, bacteria-laden fingers had lain before his. I watched while he poked a (gloved) finger inside his ear and had a good scratch...and then I watched while he returned to his room and started to insert a needle into the next patient. His gloves still firmly on his hands.


 I could continue and tell you about the ancient old man who, blind in one eye, and despite an obvious hand tremor, was ruthlessly piercing screaming babies with a needle, to test for malaria… but I think you get the picture.


Finally Simon’s name was called and he fearlessly entered the examination room alone. It was almost an anticlimax when he emerged unscathed, about 10 minutes later. Apparently he had told the doctor about his knee. The doctor had listened with great interest, taken Simon’s blood pressure, checked his heart and then prescribed him…paracetamol. He didn’t touch or even look at the knee. Not once. At all.

” Probably a good thing”, I said.

“Please will you give me a treatment?”  Simon replied.


 We all know that I‘m firm advocate of natural healing techniques, but, well, In the UK, the reason that complementary therapies are named as such, is that they are supposed to be used to complement conventional western medicine. Suddenly I found myself in strange, uncharted territory where locals, expats and now my own boyfriend had all decided that (other than in emergencies) Western medicine, Principe style, just didn’t cut it.  And for Simon, treatments from me were now the only option.


And, it turned out, it was not just for Simon. There was a direct need for some modern, holistic knowledge, advice and treatments. Not for the locals, who were fine, thank you very much, with their bone-setters and herbalists, but for the poor beleaguered expats who seemed beset with all sorts of injuries and health issues. Visiting either the hospital or a witch-doctor seemed a step too far for most of them.


And so I found myself advising warm olive oil for an ear-ache, natural yoghurt for a yeast infection, handing out the tea-tree oil like nobody’s business.  Remedial Massage and Fascial Release were prescribed (and applied) for the injured knee; Indian Head Massage

for a terrible migraine; Bowen for a hurt wrist; Deep Tissue Massage for a pain in the back… no charge of course;  I was no longer a therapist, but a First Aider.


And let me tell you, when you are far from home, and good medical care is a distant memory, a pair of healing hands and a little natural health knowledge goes a very long way!

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