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DFTB go to South Africa


When Annet Alenyo Ngabirano spoke about Ubuntu at DasSMACC, one of the things everyone wanted to know was how they could help. There was talking about donating to Supadel or supporting African academics and writers. Another suggestion was for those lucky enough to get a study budget to go to Africa and share their knowledge and experience. When Kat Evans came to Brisbane last year to speak at DFTB17, she was very excited about her upcoming secret project.

BADEMFest18 was conceived as a very different type of conference. There was to be no staying in corporate hotels and heading back to our rooms at the end of a busy day of learning – this was a chance to sleep under canvas, drink glorious South African wine, and listen to talented local musicians, all whilst listening to some great talks.

The Place

The last time I visited South Africa was ten years ago for my honeymoon (Editor’s note: Remind me, it’s my tin anniversary this year), so it took a little convincing to be allowed to go on my own. For those of you who are geographically challenged, Capetown is 10,308km and three flights from Melbourne.

When Kat told us that her dream was for a conference with a festival vibe, I had flashbacks to Glastonbury, dome tents and the great unwashed.  I could not have been more wrong. The town of Greyton was an hour and a half outside of Capetown proper, and the effects of the most devastating drought in recent history were apparent. Once lush fields had become dust bowls, and everywhere, there were signs reminding us to conserve water.

The campsite was something to behold. A village of eighty-seven canvas tents housed all of the delegates. But these were not ordinary tents. There was no sleeping on the floor (the scorpions might get you after all), and there was everything the budding glamper could need.

The conference area proper was a short walk from the campsite and based in a large bedouin tent with surprisingly good acoustics. The intimacy of us sitting under the canvas together helped foster a bond. We all sat and chatted with our neighbours, no matter what nationality or speciality. And whilst spotty Wi-Fi has been the downfall of some conferences, it was not an issue here. Instead of getting frustrated with the lack of access, we just put our phones down and actually talked to each other.

The People

Given that this event was a first of its kind in South Africa it was important that it was as inclusive. With the support of the Supadel program, delegates came from all over Africa to share their experience of Brave African medicine. For me, this was one of the highlights. It is one thing to read accounts of life in the Emergency Centre but to talk to these amazing clinicians, nurses and paramedics about their day-to-day life humbled me. When you are sitting in a talk on the ultrasound findings for HIV-associated tuberculosis, then you know you are dealing with something a little out of the ordinary.

The Talks

As you might imagine from a conference born from the SMACC phenomenon, there was a healthy mix of clinical and non-clinical topics – all relevant to the setting. Luckily for you all, Simon Carley was sitting in front of me with his laptop open, taking copious notes. You can read St. Emlyn’s account of all things BADEMFest here.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

The Workshops

Whilst the single stream of talks kept everyone together it was the workshops that we were all talking about over the campfire. Every decision was a tough one, with so many amazing options available. I decided to broaden my horizons and find out about things I knew very little about.

I started at the HIV and TB workshop and soon realised that, despite having done an ID elective at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago, I knew nothing. Local experts soon taught me the basics of the FASH exam and how the answer to every potential ID question in South Africa is “It’s probably TB”. Whilst it is unlikely that the knowledge I gained will be of much use in middle-class suburbia, I feel I have a much greater idea of the burden of disease in a place where residents routinely perform 5 or 6 lumbar punctures a night.

Then, I signed up for this workshop. Working where I do, I am used to dealing with Ice-affected adults on a daily basis, and I thought I might learn the nuances of chemical sedation. How wrong I was. I learnt something far more important. I learned three key points:-

  • Avoid
  • Escape
  • Gain a tactical advantage

At six foot three and mumble-mumble kilos, I think I am invincible. I am not. And neither are you. Almero Oosthuizen has encouraged me to do something and learn, for myself, a little more about self defence.

The final amazing workshop was the Simulation workshop hosted by Ian Summers and Jo Park-Ross. The lucky delegates rotated around the big five stations, talking with and learning from an international who’s who of simulation and education, including Sandra Viggers, Morten Lindquist, Rowan Duys, Ross Hofmeyr, Natalie May, Penny Wilson Ross Fisher – and myself. It was a great opportunity for us to learn from the delegates and, once again, to realise that what might work in our bright and shiny institutions might not be applicable in lower-middle-income countries.

The Feels

Perhaps it was because I was 10,308km away from home and had my first undisturbed night’s sleep since my eldest child was born, but I felt refreshed. I loved the talks, but #BadEMFest18 was much more than the talks, the speakers, or the venue. It was a conference where I could sit by the campfire and chat with strangers or sit and gaze up at the stars on my own. It was a conference where people were not afraid to hug each other or shed tears, either on stage or in the audience. It was a conference where, on the last day, so many of us wondered if we could just keep the feeling going a little bit longer.

Coming back to reality has been hard. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for the ability to have a three-minute shower and a working toilet, but I miss the early morning chats in front of the coffee cart. I miss sitting on the grass and sipping Six Dogs gin whilst listening to some amazing live music. I miss the deep philosophical discussions about kindness to oneself and to others.

As I was decompressing in my hotel, en route back to Melbourne, all I could do was write to as many of those people that I had had the good fortune to meet and say thank you.

But don’t just take my word for how different it was – read the thoughts of some of the other delegates.

Penny Wilson – So BAD, it’s good

Dan Roberts – Lessons for Worthing from the Western Cape

Kaleb Lachenicht – Inside the bubble of #BadEMFest18

and of course, Simon Carley

If you want to find out more how you can help then take a look here.

Extra special thanks to the organizers for allowing me to speak about something that is not medical (but still so important) for a change. I loved the challenge. And thanks especially to Michelle Alisio who made sure I got to Greyton and back in one piece.



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