We spoke to Medical Officer Major Nabeela Malik about her life in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Read her inspiring story to learn more about what life in the Armed Forces is really like.
What made you want to join the army in the first place?
I first tried out at university, at a fair. The university had a training day and it was nothing compared to what I pictured. I had a sense of adventure I wanted to do something different, I wanted to challenge myself and, I’ve never looked back.
Can you tell us a bit about your role in the forces at the moment?
I’m a medical officer with 212 Field Hospital, a Reserve Unit in Nottingham. My training is in general surgery and the job involves treating people in the NHS with abdominal problems and emergencies.
I’ve been to Kenya twice on exercises to protect the local communities (in 2010 and 2016). The first exercise we did involved immunising children up to the age of five and offering primary health care in rural communities in Kenya, in areas where there was a very high mortality rate among children.
The second exercise we did was next to the Kenya Somali border, to the North of Kenya, where we were primarily offering health care and dental capability to local people – many of whom had never seen a conventional doctor in their lives. We would often wake up in the morning and there would be queues of patients who had travelled for several miles – even several hours! – to see us and get free health care. The main conditions we treated were illnesses that we don’t encounter day to day in our NHS like respiratory illnesses in children, diarrhoea related illnesses, and even HIV and Malaria.
Was this trip out of your comfort zone professionally?
I would say it was, and it was definitely challenging. Although the medical problems were quite simple and methodical, things like living in crowded conditions meant that infections and diarrhoea related illnesses from not drinking clean water were easily passed on. So, in some ways there were lots of problems that people had that were very similar to each other and we got the jist of things very quickly.
What was the toughest part of this deployment for you?
The toughest part was one evening when we were just shutting down for the day, a Samburu warrior (also known as Moran), came with his two fellow warriors on a motor bike having been bitten by a snake. He was really ill; he was sweating, and panting. Interestingly, his friends had actually picked up the snake and put it in a plastic bag and brought it with them. It turned out the snake was a Puff Adder – I recognised it because I spent some of my childhood in Kenya and have a healthy fear of puff adder snakes because of how dangerous they are.
These Moran warriors go out into the rural areas on their own, so they’re aware there are many different species of venomous snakes. One of their biggest fears is getting bitten by a snake. Although, there was a language barrier, I could see the bite on the man’s leg, the snake and I could see a really sick man – I didn’t need any more information. As far as medical history goes, you had it all there in front of you; the only thing left to do was to move him a to place where they had the anti-venom. I could see the patient in front of me was really unwell, but we didn’t have the anti-venom to treat him, so all I could offer him was some pain relief. I gave a small amount of money to the man driving the motor bike to fill up his petrol tank and directed them to the nearest hospital where I knew there would have the anti-venom they needed.
To what extent is health education a part of your role on a humanitarian mission?
That wasn’t my direct role, but we had combat medical technicians so when people would arrive, they would run health education workshops. They used translators and visual aids to teach people about drinking cleaning water and avoid cooking fires by their houses.
There’s a stigma associated with some of the other illnesses like tuberculosis and HIV. As a result, people won’t seek help until they’re really ill because they think they’ll be judged but, by then it’s much harder to treat.
Do any memories from your deployment really stand out?
One of the points to note really is that even in the present day there are communities in the world who are so disadvantaged and little things can make such a big difference to them. It was a real eye opener to see the way people live, their traditional nomadic lives, the challenges that they face – but also how happy they were. The kids were always so cheerful, and it just reminds you that there is more that unites human beings and makes us similar to each other, even though the conditions they live in are so different to what we’re used to.
I enjoyed my deployment to Kenya and I was really pleased to be able to be part of helping people in the short time we were there. It’s quite sad that the health care infrastructure in some rural parts of the developing world aren’t the best. We can’t impose our standards on them but where we can help it’s really nice to be able to. Having been in the Armed Forces for so many years it’s also nice to be part of a bigger mission and the values that we have that, if we can help people, we will.
What would you say to any young person thinking about joining the forces?
I would say that they should be for prepared for lots of adventure, stimulation and, really, the time of their life! I would highly recommend joining the Army Medical Service, be they a Combat Medical Technician or a doctor. Some of the best experiences that have shaped my life have been in uniform. I gained a much wider experience of the world that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t joined the British Army.