Five minutes with... Sonia Barnfield, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Indonesia

In eastern Indonesia, a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school. Dr Sonia Barnfield is using her expertise in women’s health to improve the care available to mothers and babies in Soe, West Timor. We caught up with her halfway through her placement.

Why did you decide to volunteer with VSO?

I’m a member of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists, which offers a one-year fellowship opportunity with VSO. I like the fact that the work VSO volunteers do is sustainable. Some other organisations seem to arrive, get the job done, and then leave.

Tell us about the work that you are doing.

I am here to help improve the skills of two doctors and a small team of midwives and general practitioners at Soe Public Hospital, so that they will be better able to respond to emergency obstetric cases. It’s important to me that I use everything as an opportunity for teaching. I could do everything myself, but then nothing will change once I’m gone. I do training sessions twice a week, on things such as forceps delivery.

What are some of your biggest achievements?

Before I arrived, none of the doctors in the hospital could do caesarean sections. But I’ve been gradually training them, and now we have two doctors who can do caesareans. They’re at the operative stage, but they still need to learn when to actually do the caesarean. So I’m gently pushing them into decision-making.

Another thing is that the ultrasound laboratory wasn’t being used before I arrived. The midwives and doctors didn’t know how to use the machine, and were scared. I’ve been teaching them how to use it, and how to observe the foetus. They all crowd round the ultrasound machine when I’m teaching them, and they’re all so eager to learn! Now, we do four or five ultrasound scans per day.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

I’ve had eight babies die at the hospital since I’ve been here. I’ve also had one maternal death since being here. I couldn’t prevent it, as the mother was in a coma when she came into the hospital. I’ve never had to deal with that in the UK.

What skills will you take back to the UK?

Some things I’m doing here are things I’ve never done before back in the UK. For example, I’ve had to deal with five eclampsia seizures here, which is more than I’ve ever done. I’ve only seen two in the UK in the last six or seven years.

By volunteering I have gained a completely different experience. It’s not just teaching, but also managerial experience. I have to manage the obstetrics unit, which is a job that consultants and managers would do back in the UK. I feel I now have more management skills, and that I’m more self-sufficient and decisive.

What’s your advice to obstetricians and gynaecologists considering volunteering?

You won’t change the world overnight, but little changes help. If you sustain just a few procedures, then you’ve made a difference.

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.