A letter from our medical students in Benin

Student affairs
The Gee
Student life
Mois de la Francophonie
Faculty of Medicine
Faculty of Health Sciences
uOttawa medical students pose with a group of health staff on the steps of a health clinic in Benin.
By Juliette Thibaudeau, Dre Anna Mijavec, Jolaine Lafrance, Marie-Noëlle Laprise, Alexandre Cosmatos et Natalia Fontecha.

Cotonou, Benin, March 3, 2024

Sitting on the terrace taking in the last rays of sunlight, we discuss the past few weeks of our medical placement in Benin. Who are we? We’re five fourth-year medical students and a resident in the francophone family medicine program at the University of Ottawa. Our stay in Benin marks the 20th year of a partnership between the Francophone Affairs office of the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Health Sciences of the Université d’Abomey-Calavi.

Our adventure began with two weeks in Cotonou, a large city in the francophone West African country. We chose to explore different options at the Centre national hospitalier universitaire, including OB/GYN, hematology, pediatrics and psychiatry. Joined by a common language, we were able to have exchanges, thanks to these placements, with Beninese medical and pharmacy students. Immersed in Beninese culture, we gained a much deeper understanding of the impact of culture on patient intake.

Juliette Thibaudeau helps care for patients at a clinic in Benin while on an internship.

“We faced difficult situations, including when we saw people die at the hospital for lack of finances.”

Juliette Thibaudeau, Dr. Anna Mijavec, Jolaine Lafrance, Marie-Noëlle Laprise and Natalia Fontecha

Our placement then continued with a much-anticipated week: setting up a medical clinic in Colli, a rural village. This medical mission was made possible thanks to the donations of medication and the funds we received of nearly $25,000. Many preparatory sessions were necessary, including training on tropical diseases and the geopolitical situation, not to mention organizing bins of medical supplies and preparing individual doses of medication.

A medical student examines a baby with a stethoscope.

“Two nurses from Montfort Hospital, four Ottawa doctors and a Beninese pharmacist joined us to back us up. Over the week, 830 patients were treated in our mobile clinic.”

Juliette Thibaudeau, Dr. Anna Mijavec, Jolaine Lafrance, Marie-Noëlle Laprise and Natalia Fontecha

We also offered handwashing workshops and education on healthy sexuality in schools. Hundreds of people lined up to see us and we worked for hours in suffocating heat... This demanding week, made possible thanks to outstanding teamwork and the support of our local partners, made us aware of the striking disparity between rural and urban settings in terms of access to care.

Returning to Cotonou for the fourth week, the experience ended in the company of local non-profit organizations. Experts in the fight against HIV, health care promotion for youth and reproductive health shared their knowledge with us.

Heads filled with memories, we begin again, having grown from this experience. The warmth, not only that indicated by the thermometer, but also that of the Beninese, affected us deeply. With globalization and immigration, the skills we acquired will be very useful to us in Ottawa. Once we’re back home, we’ll try to apply our new knowledge so that we offer culturally-appropriate care to our francophone patients from West Africa.

A 20-year partnership

In 2003, the Francophone Affairs office of uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine established a partnership with the Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin, which would transform the learning experience of a hundred or so francophone doctors and shape their personal and career paths. Learn more about our 20-year partnership with Benin.