For summer interns, a crash course in becoming a daakter saab

The AKU summer volunteer programme is fascinating. 3,000 students applied this year but barely 60 were chosen.

Meiryum Ali June 23, 2011
‘You have many career options. They all end in medicine.’ This is a joke from a viral Facebook group called Desitips, which as the name suggests imparts advice to ‘Desis’.  The joke is not far off the mark: the ‘Daakter’ [doctor] is a goal coveted by many ambitious parents, borne by their unsuspecting children. The Daakter is also my medical student of a cousin, who once visited straight from university to throw a bone at me. “It’s called the Humerus bone!” she yelled excitedly, while I searched for disinfectant. No one lives and breathes medical science more than her.

Then I met the Aga Khan University volunteers.

The AKU summer volunteer programme is fascinating. Consider the numbers: 3,000 students applied this year but barely 60 were chosen. Was the interview that tough, I ask one?

“It was going fine I guess,” they replied.

“And then the guy asked me who invented science, Christians or Muslims?”

Each intern (about six to each hospital department) has to clock in 250 hours over a period of six weeks. It starts with an introductory clip on the Aga Khan “[who] owns like half the world,” as one intern quipped.

Take for example, Sara*, a 17 year old, whose entire ‘medical’ experience so far in life started and ended with a frog’s dissection in the bio lab.  The AKU internship was her first.

“[In] one ultrasound I was screaming, ‘It’s moving! it’s moving!’ and the doctor burst out laughing at me and said, ‘Calm down, it’s supposed to move, it’s a baby!”

But even if the doctors amused themselves, the interns felt they were dealing with life and death.

“The patients thought I was a real doctor!” said Sara. “I had to dejectedly tell them I haven’t even finished my A’ Levels, and the only medical advice I can offer is, Panadol for sar ka dard.” In the end, she was relegated to doling out emotional support.

In Pakistan, out of a fear for gender biases, doctors often do not allow pregnant women to have an ultrasound before a certain amount of time. “One woman turned to me sobbing, ‘Don’t they know that I can’t keep buying [gender neutral] white clothes forever? That baby girls need pretty pink clothes while larkay kay liye koi bhee pajama theek hai?’” Sara just held her hand and said, “Ji, ji, bohat masla hai”. They talked about baby clothes rates at Zainab market as if Sara had five children of her own already.

For many interns, it was the first taste of what the hospital really revolves around: doctor-patient interaction.

“Many patients don’t speak Urdu so they bring their own translators,” said Sara. “[It’s] time consuming. You know how medical translators are...” No I don’t, but neither did she until recently. That is how the internship is already changing her.

She’s already correcting me for saying gynaecologist: “Say gyni, it’s shorter”.

She explains that working in the HR department is not cool enough. Not that the Accident and Emergency section is any cooler. “Everyone wanted to opt [for it] thinking it would be like Grey’s Anatomy, you know, axes sticking out of skulls etc.” The interns discovered reality was less glamorous. “People show up at the Emergency for things like nazlas [a cold].”

So what’s the verdict? “It’s only been four days! Ask me after two months!” But you can tell she’s excited about the whole thing, the twice-a-day chai breaks, the 9 to 5 timings, and the first stamp of a real job. “It’s nothing like school; nothing like Bio... it’s just, woah.”

I recognise this reaction, if nothing else: Expect bone-throwing from her any day now.

About the competitive nature of the programme: ‘It’s strange, the people who got the job can’t stop complaining about how tiring it is, and the people who don’t have the job would do anything to have it.’

*not her real name.

Published in The Express Tribune.
Meiryum Ali A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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