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Gold, incentives and meh

Why not try a gap year working abroad with VSO?

Dr Gail Haddock chose to spend the gap between VTS and practice in wartorn

Sierra Leone

o other specialist training offers the same opportunity for travel as that gap between VTS and practice. The world's your oyster and although you won't find any pearls with Voluntary Service Overseas, I guarantee you'll never be bored. I discovered minor surgery (amputating legs with cheese wire, skin grafts with a sharpened dinner knife) alternative medicine (treating broken legs by breaking chicken legs) and nouvelle cuisine (monkey and rat). VSO has several advantages.

 · No previous overseas experience required.

 · Two-year, one-year and even six-month postings are available.

 · Social support: VSO is a huge organisation, introducing you to other like-minded volunteers.

 · Financial support: VSO pays a pre-departure grant of around £800, all travel, course expenses, living expenses in-country and a resettlement grant of about £2,000 after two years.

 · Practical support: each country has a field office to sort out in-country orientation courses, money, work permits, flights and evacuations. Usually this meant medi-vacs for people falling off motorbikes, or the occasional psycho-vacs, but the field office in Sierra Leone had the added headache of a rebel invasion.

Our hospital was forced to evacuate for two months, leaving the patients walking home through the bush and the theatre welded shut against rebels and looters. One of our nurses needed a Caesarean section and I had to return with welding equipment.

Volunteers depart in September or February, but it's best to apply at

least four months in advance. Your MBCHB should guarantee an interview.

The interview entails a day of musical chairs between discussion groups, organised games (with observers to sift out those with Nazi tendencies) and two 30-minute individual interviews.

Once accepted, you will be sent on a weekend workshop (designed to give you time to change your mind). When I returned from this 'post-selection weekend', four job descriptions awaited. Postings range from hospitals (of

various sizes, urban or very, very rural) through primary outreach programmes where you might be in charge of vaccinating a whole region's children, to more specific projects on AIDS, tuberculosis or leprosy.

You can choose or refuse posts, remembering VSO is only a job agency and your CV may be submitted along with others to your potential employer. If nothing suits, you can defer.

This whole process can take months (even with e-mail) and jobs can fall through, so keep those locum jobs going until you have your plane tickets.

Meanwhile arrange a medical with your own GP, start the jabs and do a variety of posting-specific courses. I went on the health workers' course (four days), finance and administration course (three days), motorcycle course (two days) and a week's surgery for non-surgeons course arranged separately through the International Health Exchange.

My 'pre-departure weekend' was in late August for the 200 volunteers departing in September. This was the first time I met all nine VSOs leaving for Sierra Leone. We were bombarded with pep talks, medical talks and advice sessions from returned volunteers. It was a bit like Fresher's Week at college, with the best bit the time spent in the bar getting excited about our impending adventures.

All you have to do then is rent out your house, pack your camera, two years' supply of Tampax and anti-malarials, short-wave radio, tapes, books and clothes into two rucksacks not exceeding 25kg, and off you go.

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