I travelled to Northeast India in 2018 as a physiotherapist and clinical tutor with four student physiotherapists on their elective placement. It was my first time volunteering overseas. For four weeks we worked hard with the local partner organisation to deliver individualised assessments and interventions for children with various disabilities. Another key role of mine was to lead service development initiatives in collaboration with the local staff.

It was an intensely busy project and we managed to achieve many of our objectives. However, there were lots of challenges too, both personally and professionally. One of these was the worry I had about leaving the project and the ability of the service to achieve effective service delivery in the medium to long term. For four weeks, I was engrossed in working with my colleagues to make the service better for the service users, and I found it difficult to abruptly leave it after this time.

Comhlámh’s Volunteer Charter outlines the importance of translating your overseas volunteer experience into tangible contributions to our society here in Ireland. Principle 6 challenges us to participate in global development issues on our return home. To be honest, I found the whole idea of ‘what’s next?’ very disconcerting. Although I had had an intensely enriching experience, the pervading feeling was that ‘I am not really sure what to make of all of this’. When friends, relatives and work colleagues asked me how I got on, I found it incredibly difficult to summarise. On arriving home, I immediately returned to work the next day. This fast-paced working life, and mindset, continued for the next couple of months until our debriefing, which was facilitated by Comhlámh.

By this time, I was feeling exhausted and a little burnt out. In hindsight, I was also entirely ready to release the valve on the pressure cooker. I was given the time and opportunity to sit in and acknowledge all of the different emotions whirling around in my head that I had not yet fully processed. These ranged from fulfilment, to frustration, to relief, to self-doubt, to contentment, among others. I reflected on the impact this experience has had on me on an individual level as well as the impact of the project for the service users and partner organisation in India.

It is now the weekend before I head back to India to handover the project to this year’s team leader. I am excited to follow up on some key issues from last year’s project work. I have had time to consider the strengths of the project as well as the areas that need to be developed. I am also taking the opportunity to reflect back on recent months since the project ended, during which a lot has changed for me in my professional life. I have started working in the area of paediatric disability, a passion that evolved through my volunteer experience.

The experience has pushed me to be more active in championing issues I care deeply about, including access to rehabilitation and sustainable healthcare. Overall, coming home has initiated a greater sense of discomfort in me, and this has led to my acknowledgement of the responsibility I have in being a small cog in the wheel towards reducing global health inequalities. That discomfort, along with the invaluable debriefing I participated in, has been critical to changing my attitudes and actions. I am no longer so unnerved by the ‘what’s next?’ question.

About Author:
Name: Emma McCarthy
Award: Silver
SDG: 3