Analiese - Medical Assistant in Japan

Gap Year Japan – Analiese spent 6 months as a Medical Assistant in a Japanese hospital

What made you volunteer in the first place?

During my last year of high school, I had a couple of ideas about what I wanted to do with studying and following my interest of medicine, but nothing set in stone. I have always loved travelling and wanted to make sure I got as much in as I could before I settled down for the long years of university ahead of me. A Lattitude brochure was thrown in front of me (by their very well thought out advertising) and I decided to have a read out of curiosity. Seeing the incredible opportunities presented made me really think about the other options I had coming out of school, and seeing the medical placement in Japan really interested me in regards to following a desire to study medicine.


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant

Why Japan?

Japan was one of the few places that presented such a specific medical role, and through previous travel around Asia I wanted to discover more, so it fitted in quite well. I knew little about Japan before I went, but it didn’t take long to discover the unique history, advances in technology and the vibrant colours and people who called Japan home. One of the questions I got asked most before I left was “Do you speak any Japanese?” and “Do you like sushi?”. I can happily say the answers to those questions have changed (positively).


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant

Can you describe your placement in detail?

I was placed in Kumamoto, in the of the southern island of Kyushu. It has a population of around 700,000, which is a lot bigger than my home town. It is classed as a ‘rural’ town, being surrounded by beautiful mountains and laced with thousands of rice fields and sakura (cherry blossom). It is home to extensive history shown through the endless shrines and the 400 year old castle and township. The lack of foreigners was different at first, but I came to love the uniqueness and serenity of this small town. Alongside it being small, the range of languages spoken was quite minimal, which encouraged me to learn as much Japanese as I could so I could communicate within my placement and out in the community.


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant


I worked in one of Kumamoto’s biggest hospitals, Saiseikai Kumamoto Hospital, where the standards were high and the staff were unbelievably talented. The technology in this hospital was astounding, providing care and resources beyond what I’ve seen in New Zealand.


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant


What are some examples of the duties you performed there?

The hospital specialised mainly in the care of older patients, so the majority of my duties were based around patient care such as transporting patients between wards or testing rooms, showering and cleanliness of patients and beds, assisting patients when walking throughout the wards and even just talking to the patients. On the less medical side of things, I also helped out with the hospitals ‘Dementia Recreation’ program, where we sat down with a small group of patients and just went through small games, sang songs and just got the patients talking. This was very rewarding work as it gave me a better understanding of the roles non-clinical staff do, and how it can affect a patients life within the hospital. I definitely got a lot of smiles out of those sessions!


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant


I also got to assist with trauma round, seeing the most severe cases in the hospital. I was allowed to assist the doctors by providing their tools to tend to patient wounds and really see up close what the doctor was doing, as well as see the steps of patient recovery. At the other end of the scale I got to volunteer in the staff nursery located in the hospital. This was a good balance between seriousness within the hospital and having a bit of a rest while hanging out with some cool kids!

Can you describe your accommodation?

I was lucky to get my own small apartment, with a washing machine, bed, kitchen ware and bedding, as well as a bicycle to get around. I was right beside the other volunteer who was with me at my placement, so we did things like our grocery shopping together and biked to worked together. This was a great spot as you could relax and have your own time to yourself, especially after a hectic day at the busy hospital. It was a 5 minute bike ride from the hospital, and a 10 minute bike ride from the closest supermarket/general store. I was lucky as Kumamoto is very accessible by bike.

How did you cope with the big differences between Japan and home?

There are many differences between Japan and New Zealand, but that’s what I like about it! There was always something new waiting around the corner, so I tried to explore and discover as much as I could. Language was of course going to be a barrier, as I didn’t learn any in school. But with intense study before I left, as soon as I had stepped foot in Japan I had forgotten everything I had learnt. However, being immersed in the language helped more than anything. I was constantly writing down new words I heard during the day and asking my mentor what they meant so I could try and incorporate them in my vocabulary. Also finding the correct food at supermarkets took a little getting used to, but by the end I (think) knew what was what.


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant

Favourite moment/ best thing that happened to you whilst there?

I don’t think I can pinpoint one favourite moment however! Being able to see surgeries is probably a biggie though, I would never have had the opportunity to do that in New Zealand, and I have learnt so much from it. From orthopaedic surgery, to open heart, to even brain surgery; seeing the surgeons and nurses in action was an incredible experience and has sparked an interest in a field I didn’t know too much about.


Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there?

Being in Japan, a very punctual, well structured country, I have developed the importance of having a good routine and keeping things in check. This has helped with transitioning into university and going back to learning and studying. I feel I have also learnt a lot about solo travel as throughout being in Japan I did a lot of traveling by myself (as well as with other volunteers), but with this I have learnt a lot about preparation, organisation, time management and independence.


Gap Year Japan - Medical Assistant


What are your future plans, and how do you think your volunteering experience might help?

Now, I am currently in my first year of university, studying a Bachelors of Health Science, with the hopes of getting accepted in to medicine next year. From being in the medical placement in Japan it enabled me to get a first hand insight of what the roles of the doctors, surgeons, nurses and other staff were, and gave me a better understanding of how they contributed to the health system, as well as helping patients in their road to recovery. I got to experience what the different wards within the hospital did, such as neurology, cardiovascular, oncology, ER, surgery and orthopaedic wards, seeing the differences in care and expertise provided by the staff, which gave me a new appreciation for the work that goes on in those places, as well as let me know if I want to spend the rest of my life in that area of work.

Also coming back home and starting University after a gap year I was a little sceptic about studying after a year off, as I thought I would be in the small minority that would have done that. Boy was I wrong! So many other students I had talked to, even within the first day, had come from a range of different backgrounds. Some have come straight out of school, but others have taken a gap year, or sometimes two or three, and using it for volunteering and to gain life experience, as well as using it to see the world.

Why should others consider heading to Japan with Lattitude?

Why should you consider going to Japan with Lattitude? This is why! Japan is such a unique country with so much to offer, and you don’t have to like anime to go. With the programs Lattitude provide you are fully and entirely looked after, but you do have your own independence. Japan is an incredibly safe country to roam about by yourself, and if you do get lost, the friendly people there are more than happy to help you find your way. This truly was one of those ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’  that you will look back on and smile, because it was just such an unreal experience. The sense of appreciation you gain from working in the same environment as the role models you look up to is forever rewarding as it will always be something I am grateful for having the opportunity to do.

Cassim - Community Work in Japan

Cassim in Japan- Lattitude Gap YearAt first it all seemed like a dream. Six months in Japan on a voluntary placement? I was writing a new page of my life and little did I know that this would have an impact I could never have imagined.

I climbed to the summit of Japan’s highest mountain, Mt.Fuji (3,776 metres high) and saw a night sky I thought never existed. A glorious sunrise and the world beneath me. I tasted food I thought I’d never eat and found I loved it. I learned to speak, read and work in a language I’d never have imagined I’d learn. Japan truly deserves to be a hot spot for tourists. Especially those with a keen desire to immerse themselves in such a different culture.

Once I had started working in the Red Cross hospital in the city of Nagoya I was amazed by the incredibly high standards of one of the world’s most powerful work-forces. I will always cherish the memories and the opportunities given to me.

Within 4 months, I had picked up a significant amount of Japanese. The Director of the hospital allowed me to work in the emergency room. I gained so much hands on medical experience that I knew I’d have no problem getting a place at medical school when I returned home. It was truly a privilege to be trusted to work in such a challenging environment doing something I loved.

By the end of the placement I didn’t want to come home. I decided to extend my placement for another 6 months. Between these two placements, I returned home for 2 weeks to see my family and attend an interview for a place at medical school that I had applied to while in Japan. The next six months in Japan passed a lot faster than the first. I adapted to the culture and lifestyle so well that by the end of my placements, I was nervous about coming home.

I sincerely hope others will take the chance to transform their lives into something so insanely wonderful that their former selves would beam with pride. To this day I am envious that my own country does not match up to the standards I witnessed in Japan. My only regret is that I had enjoyed myself to such an extent that I can’t help but crave to return to the country that transformed my life: Japan.

I am now back in London as a medical student – I know in my heart of hearts that my Lattitude Global Volunteering experience was the key that has enabled me to achieve my dream.

Jack - Community Work in Japan

Keira - Community Work in Japan

Sally & Bronte - Community Work in Japan

Aliya - Community Work in Japan

Aliya in Japan- Lattitude Gap Year

I am having an amazing time working at a care home for physically and mentally disabled people. The residents here are varied in their capabilities. I get to work closely with each of them and have got to know all their unique personalities.

We spend most of our time assisting with their daily living: helping to feed people, making beds, putting away laundry and so on, but the work involves much more than that. The home runs many clubs and activities such as flower arranging, cooking class and a singing group. These are always really enjoyable to help out with, making sure everyone can get as involved as possible.

Also we make sure the residents get to be as independent as possible. We often take them out for a stroll or to go to the shops, and are always ready to help with their individual requests. Anything from painting their nails to playing them at checkers, there is always something new and unexpected! We also do exercises with them every day to keep their muscles in use if they find movement difficult.

I have learned all kinds of skills during my time here and had all kinds of incredible and valuable life experiences. However I think the main skill I have developed here is communication. Learning Japanese by being constantly surrounded by native speakers is amazing. It is very different and more effective than formal lessons and much more interactive. However learning to communicate here is not as simple as overcoming the language barrier.

Working in this setting has really opened my mind. It makes you realise how many different ways there are to communicate! For instance there are people here who can speak fine but whose learning difficulties mean they forget we are not fluent native Japanese speakers. There are others who can only communicate in written notes or with alphabet cards. Others cannot speak or write but use gestures and expressions. Once you get used to it is just as effective! And most importantly everyone responds to a smile!

Aliya in Japan- Lattitude Gap Year

Being a volunteer is great. By living and working in a different country you get to understand the culture in much more depth than you ever could as a tourist. You can always see the contribution your efforts are making and you always know you are doing something valuable. It is really rewarding and uplifting.

The people here are really welcoming. They seem to love helping us experience different aspects of Japanese culture. We have also been lucky enough to visit lots of interesting historical and cultural places: ancient castles, beautiful temples and fascinating museums. We have even participated in local festivals, which is an amazing experience and very different to anything back home!

I have got so much out of this experience. I’ve become so attached to this country that I intend to stay longer in Japan and undertake another Lattitude placement. I know I will always have strong links with this place.

I have not decided what I would like to do in the future. But after having this wonderful opportunity and meeting all these challenges, I feel like I could do anything and that any opportunity is open to me. I know now I will have the confidence to succeed in whatever I choose to do.

Lauren - Community Work in Japan

Lauren in Japan- Lattitude Gap Year

Most people my age rush through the transition of school to university to career, not thinking that they can pause for a moment and really experience the world. I am thankful that I have had this opportunity and that through the help of Lattitude Global Volunteering, others will do the same.

My typical day in Japan began with rushing to get breakfast in the dining hall of Harima Home. I’d hurriedly eat the fried egg/banana/ham and spinach (and ALWAYS some jam on toast!) in the staff room, before rushing off to the independent living section to help with the breakfast care. The Japanese have an almost religious view of time keeping, and so we often had to race to be there at 8.25am with a smile on our faces.

I’d prepare coffee and breakfast for the 8 residents, whilst aiding people to take medicine if required. On my first day, I was taught how to feed Aota-San. He had to be helped due to his epilepsy preventing him from holding his head still to eat. Initially, I was terrified – I’d never done this kind of thing before. I didn’t want to spill hot coffee on him if he jerked the straw too fast. But, Aota-San’s encouraging smile and his daily bellowing of ‘Thank You’ in English made us firm friends and boosted my confidence. He would always make sure that it was me who helped him in the mornings (and woe betide any staff who got in his way!). Gradually, I got to know all the residents, celebrating New Year’s Day together with a feast of traditional sushi.

Lauren in Japan - Lattitude Gap Year

At 9.15am, I’d say goodbye to Rose House and walk back over to the main building to board the minibus to Shiso Home. The Shiso Bus drives backwards and forwards between Shiso and Harima Homes every day, swapping residents between the Homes for activities and programmes.

The bus would bring Lee (another Lattitude volunteer) from Shiso Home, who would then spend the day working with Julia at Harima Home, whilst I would go to Shiso Home to work with Luke (also a Lattitude volunteer).

At Shiso Home, my duties mainly involved running arts and crafts programs – paper collages, making 3D sculptures, calendars and wall displays. In addition, once a week Luke and I organised our own project. We did things such as baking, English lessons, day trips out to scenic walks, film days and bowling competitions. Our key aim was resident participation, as many were mentally handicapped. We focused on simple ideas designed to stimulate their senses.

At 3:00pm I’d set back off to Harima Home. We’d stop on the way over to help load the Shiso Bus with bread from the bakery. The staff at the bakery were really lovely people. They’d often give me a bag full of goodies to take back and share with the other volunteers!

Lauren in Japan - Lattitude Gap Year

Initially, I struggled to see the individual underneath the disability at Shiso Home – many residents struggled to interact with those around them. However, once I had settled into my stride, their vivid personalities began shining though. The really fulfilling moments are very difficult to put into words.

I picked up many skills whilst in Japan: arts and crafts; care for the disabled; social networking in a foreign country; how to cope under extreme pressure and stress; how to look after myself and keep a home and also rudimentary Japanese.


Kerri - Community Work in Japan

Kerri in Japan - Lattitude Gap Year

I have had an amazing time volunteering in Iizuka hospital in Japan. I worked as a helper/care worker on the wards and I also helped out in the library, with administration and in the pharmacy.

When I first came to Japan, I had never lived on my own. I hadn’t really taken into consideration that I was going to have to cook, clean and learn to budget my money all by myself! Fortunately, my volunteer partner helped me learn to cook and gave me loads of advice on budgeting, which really helped. Some of our Japanese friends even taught us how to make some Japanese food!

Being in a small town like Iizuka, there aren’t many foreigners, but we made so many new friends and everyone was so friendly and patient with us. Quite a few of our friends couldn’t speak English, and our Japanese was limited to begin with. We learnt quite a bit just by hanging out with our Japanese friends (I watched a lot of Japanese movies too), we always had such a great time together!

Kerri in Japan - Lattitude Gap Year

Japan is such a beautiful country, the history is fascinating, and the people are so kind! Now I am planning on continuing my travels for at least another year – something I never thought I would ever have the confidence to do!

I have grown and changed so much as a person, I feel more confident, happier and free! Before coming here I was not ready to go to university, but I am now and plan to go after I finish travelling. I know that my experience and all I have learnt in Japan will help me in the future!