An African woman was about to give birth, and the situation was critical. Besides suffering from tuberculosis, she was HIV-positive, so the doctors attending her were poised to perform a Caesarean section. Then, suddenly, her heart stopped. The alarmed staff resuscitated her, but the situation remained critical. Some of the doctors on hand didn’t believe they could save the unfortunate woman and her baby, but others didn’t want to give up. How did it all end? After a tense battle, the doctors fought through, and the woman and her baby lived. That was just one of the challenges Igor Petrovsky overcame during his recently completed year of volunteer work in a hospital in Limpopo, South Africa, in the country’s north. Though he’s trained as an anaesthesiologist and reanimatologist, Petrovsky performed all sorts of work during his African sojourn, performing about a thousand surgical operations on patients of all ages. He delved into dental surgery, neurosurgery, obstetrics, urology, gynaecology and traumatology, even treating gunshot wounds. “I amassed fantastic experience working in South Africa,” Petrovsky says.
The adventure was the result of his joining the United Nations Volunteer Programme, which sends highly-trained experts to often poor and troubled parts of the world, where they’re needed. Petrovsky, then 39, wanted an adventure, and to see how he measured up as a doctor in a different environment than his native Ukraine. Since UN volunteers don’t get to choose what country they’ll be sent to work in, the offer to go to South Africa came relatively out of the blue. The requirements were English and work experience as an anaesthesiologist. Living for a whole year in South Africa was a challenge not only for him, but also for his family. His wife Anna, also a doctor, went to Africa with him, while his preadolescent daughter Ira stayed in Ukraine along with her grandmother for a year. “My family understands my choices and ambitions and tries to support me,” Petrovsky says.
His choice to go definitely wasn’t based on money, since United Nations volunteers (UNV’s) live on allowances that could be characterised as meagre. Rather, it was all about the adventure. “When you participate in a UNV programme you get a unique chance to see Third World countries and understand the people who live there and their cultures better. Why not take advantage of an opportunity like that?” Petrovsky says. Not that it was easy. When Petrovsky and his wife arrived in South Africa they faced not only an absolutely different culture, filled with different people and different languages and dialects, and characterised by a different mentality and lifestyle. They also faced the street-level danger for which South Africa, unfortunately, has become notorious. Following UN security rules, they weren’t allowed to speak on cellphones in the street when they were in the city of Polokwane, since it would give them away as foreigners, and thus as marks for kidnapping. Nor where they allowed to flash credit cards, cash or important documents in public, since people have been known to be murdered for such things in South Africa. When they got to Limpopo, certain areas of town were forbidden, on account of the high crime rates in a country that’s crawling with weapons. Volunteers were actually given training in what to do if they encountered various violent crime situations.
Despite the uncertain security situation, however, Petrovsky liked working in South Africa a lot, and made a number of friends among the locals. “Africans are very open-minded, friendly and emotionally
UN Volunteers were actually given training in what to do if they encountered various violent crime situations
relaxed,” he says. “They’re like your mirror. If you smile at them, they’ll smile back at you. If you shout at them, they’ll shout back. They just don’t mask their feelings.” Petrovsky is currently at home in Vinnytsa, but is really looking forward to his next UNV mission. Apparently he’s hooked on the experience. He says he’ll accept any offer the UN gives him, but that more and more he’s seized by the desire to work under extreme circumstances, and that the hazardous realms of Afghanistan have lately been capturing his imagination.