Saturday, December 18, 2010

Medical Student Elective: Part 1 - Leipzig, Germany

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Getting there
Herrzentrum Leipzig
Accommodation, food and groceries
Getting around and shopping

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As part of the final year of my medical studies, I have to undertake a minimum 4-weeks clinical placement of any kind. I chose to do mine in Germany and the UK. In this post, I'm going to talk about my experience in Germany.

Applying [back to contents]

The hospital I applied to is called "Herzzentrum Leipzig" (literally means Leipzig Heart Centre). I chose this hospital because of a recommendation from a friend who had a great experience here. To apply, just go to the hospital's website (or if you don't speak German, here is the translation from Google). From there, look up the head of department's email address and send him an email stating your intention to do your elective at his department. Also, don't forget to include your CV and letter of support from your Dean.
It is best if you apply months in advance and have already decided the exact dates of your travel. The professor is a very busy man and travel overseas very often. The most likely scenario is that his secretary will respond to your email about a couple weeks later and from there, the application process is very straight forward. In 2010, the hospital did not charge any fees for visiting overseas medical students.

Getting there
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Leipzig is located in Saxony in the Eastern part of Germany. This means that the population generally only speak German. If you are like me and only speak English, this can cause difficulty navigating through the city. But that does not mean that you have to speak German to have a great time here. The people here are generally very welcoming towards foreigners and try their best to help you out despite the language barrier. If you really need to ask a question in English, look for the younger generation as they tend to be able to speak English. Make sure you bring plenty of cash. Leipzig has not really embraced the world of electronic payment like Melbourne does. It took me a while to find an ATM and it's just much simpler (and cheaper) to bring lots of cash (in euro - not sure if the Australian dollar can be easily exchanged here).

From Australia, you need to fly to Frankfurt airport (via any transit city depending on the flight carrier of your choice), then from there a connecting flight to Leipzig/Halle airport. Give yourself plenty of time in Frankfurt so that any delays won't cause you any trouble. You'll also need the time to get things sorted as more people speak English in Frankfurt airport than in Leipzig. Another good tip is to ask the staff at Melbourne Airport (or whichever airport you come from) to check in your luggage all the way to Leipzig. Initially the guy at the check-in desk only put it through to Frankfurt (since I'm using Qatar Airways to get to Frankfurt and then Lufthansa to Leipzig), but if you ask specifically, they'll be able to check it in all the way even if you're using different airlines. Queuing at custom and quarantine clearance in Frankfurt when you have to do it again at Leipzig is not a very good way to spend your precious time at Frankfurt.I had a 4-hours transit time at Frankfurt and it was just enough time to go through border control, grabbing something to eat and buying a sim-card for my mobile phone.

It is best to try and get a German sim-card in Frankfurt rather than in Leipzig. There are a lot of choices and the English-speaking vendors in Frankfurt will be able to choose one that suits you the best. In short, you can either choose one that gives you cheap international or cheap national call. I chose the national call, not because I don't want to call back home, but because the national sim-card allows you to bundle a 3G internet connection. I suggest you get a good (and unlocked) GSM smartphone from Australia. I brought the iPhone 3GS I bought from Apple store in Australia. If you got your smartphone from a carrier (eg Optus, 3, Tesltra, etc), make sure you bring it to the carrier's shop in Australia and ensure that it is unlocked. There are two simple reasons for needing a smartphone capable of 3G internet: Google Translate and Google Maps. Just for your information, I got the national-call pre-paid card from "eplus" with a 1GB 3G data. You should also ask the attendant to activate everything for you. He'll ask for your passport and then make you wait 30 minutes while it activates. Now is a good time to go look for some food. When you come back, he'll put the simcard in your phone and activate the internet.

Once you arrive in Leipzig-Halle airport, a taxi drive to the hospital will set you back almost €50.If you are arriving during the day, you might want to check out the train instead on or (to translate to English, click on the UK flag on the upper right hand corner). Once you arrive in the hospital, show the confirmation letter that you got from the head of department (or his secretary - make sure you've printed this out beforehand). The receptionist does not speak English, so a written direction would help.

Herzzentrum Leipzig [back to contents]

Herzzentrum Leipzig is one of the largest heart centres in Europe and is home to some of the world leaders in Cardiac Surgery. The medical experience is just simply amazing. Many of the doctors there speak English. Quite obviously there is almost no experience possible in the wards, since the patients speak only German. The bulk of experience is inside the operating theater. Since there are a lot of professors of different (cardiac surgery) interests working here, there are a lot of unique techniques that you can watch here. There are cardiac surgeons all over the world coming here to observe some of the more exotic procedures.

Accommodation, food and groceries
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When you applied, you'll be offered accommodation in the guest apartment for €25 a night without breakfast. If you can spare the cash, this would be the best option as it is located in the hospital complex, about a 10-minutes walk from the front entrance. The apartment has a kitchen, bathroom and a very spacious bedroom. The biggest plus is that you can hire cable internet for €0.80/day with a refundable deposit of €60. Being so close to the hospital, it cuts the cost of travelling to and from hospital everyday. It also has a cafe on the ground floor in case you can't be bothered cooking.

The hospital cafe is open early for breakfast and lunch. Once you are given orientation to the hospital and sign the medical student contract, they'll issue you with an ID badge that double-serves as a payment card for the hospital cafe. You load the card using a machine in front of the cafe and then use it to pay for (discounted) food. The also accept cash if you haven't got your card yet, but it'll be more expensive.

For dinner, you can either cook at home, eat at the cafe in the ground floor of the apartment or go to the city. There are two grocery stores near the hospital. Everything will be in German and the attendants don't speak English, so it will take you more time to find everything. The easiest one to get to is Aldi, which requires only a straight walk down the main road and a left turn from the hospital (make sure you ask where Aldi is exactly located - Google Maps is your friend! And if your phone has a built-in compass like the iPhone, even better!)

They don't really have very good store arrangement (eg cooking oil put in the same aisle as dog food), but at least all the sausages are in the one place. Trust me, you'll want to taste their sausages. It is Germany after all! Finding alcohol is even easier than shopping for groceries. Germans love their alcohol. Not only bottleshops are more abundant than supermarkets, alcohol is also sold and (in some cases) allowed to be drunk in open areas. Such a contrast to Australia (apparently the drunken capital of the world) where drinking in public area is banned and selling alcohol are bound by a gazillion licenses and law.

Getting around and shopping [back to contents]

The city centre can be accessed using a bus and a tram (or if you like walking, you only need to take 1 tram to the city). The bus driver does not really speak English and only carry one type of ticket with him (the 1 hour Leipzig metro ticket). For that reason, I prefer to just skip the bus and do a 10 minutes walk to the tram stop where I can buy any kind of ticket I like on the tram stop.

From Herzzentrum Leipzig to city centre:
From Herzzentrum Leipzig: Bus 76 to Probstheida, get off at Probstheida
From Probstheida: Tram 15 to Miltitz, get off at Augustusplatz

Tip: Augustusplatz is right at the border of the city centre. From here, walk towards the city (it's really obvious where the city is) and enjoy!

Tip: make sure you mark both tram stops in Google Maps - you'll want to be enjoying the city and not worrying about remembering which roads you take!)

Tip: The ticket machines in the tram only accept coin and automatically stamp your ticket. The ticket machines at the tram stop take notes and do not stamp your ticket, so you can buy a few day tickets in advance to avoid having to buy the 1-hour tickets from the bus. The unstamped tickets need to be stamped using the machines in the bus or tram the first time you use them. If you bought a day ticket and got it stamped in the morning, you need to show it again to the bus driver when you get back in the evening, but no need to stamp it twice.

From city centre to Herzzentrum Leipzig:
From Augustusplatz: Tram 15 to Meusdorf, get off at Probstheida
From Probstheida: Bus 76 to Herzzentrum

Tip: it's actually much faster to just walk back from the tram stop to your apartment - the bus makes a longer trip return. Google Maps is your friend again! And you can also visit Aldi on the way back if you need some groceries.

I'm here in the late December to early January. There is a lot of snow and the city looks beautiful with all the snow. Walking is a breeze (and very enjoyable) as long as you wear boots and avoid areas with thick snow (I've accidentally submerged half of my foot in snow more than once). Once you get to the city centre, there are all kind of shops.Since this is near Christmas, they have closed almost all the major roads in the city centre and turn them into Christmas market. The prices are a bit steep (but again Europe is expensive in general), but there are a lot of interesting things you can see and buy. The variety of food is amazing and they taste really nice.

Most of the merchants don't speak English, but the usual tactic of pointing and handing over some Euro do most of the tricks. When they realise you don't speak German, the shopkeepers generally try to re-ask their questions in English (keyword: "try"). Try to resist the temptation of buying alcohol from the Christmas market. It will be really easy to "go over your limit" because alcohol is so easy to buy and consume in the Christmas market and they are present in such a great variety. Being drunk in the middle of an East German city while not speaking any German is a very toxic combination.

There are a lot of places to shop in the city. But there is a place worth mentioning: the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. This train station is the largest in Germany and contains 3 levels of shops that are open everyday from 06:00 to 22:00. You can find almost anything at this one spot (and most importantly: ATMs!!!). To get here, use the direction to get to the centre of the city, except don't get off at Augustusplatz. Stay in the tram for another station and it will take you straight to the front of the Hauptbahnhof.

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Click on the links below to view photos (on Facebook). The other person appearing in the photos is a university friend who kindly travelled with me to cities near Leipzig for 3 days.

Dessau and Wittenberg
Elective at Leipzig is a very rewarding experience. I recommend it to anyone interested in Cardiac Surgery and wanting an unique and challenging experience.

  • You will be able to see rare and bleeding-edge techniques in cardiac surgery unlikely to be available anywhere else
  • The people there are very nice and welcoming towards foreigners
  • Leipzig is close to some of Germany's tourist destination, with many cities accessible by a 1-2 hours train ride
  • If you arrive near Christmas, their market is a must-see
  • Most consultant surgeons there speak English, therefore inability to speak German will not severely affect your surgical experience
  • Applying is straight forward without too much bureaucracy or much hassle from border control (as Australian citizen in 2010, there was no visa requirement to do elective for less than 30 days in Germany)

  • Navigating the city will be difficult without speaking any German, but still do-able
  • It is very cold in winter (although if you love snow like me, this is a positive!)

Feel free to leave any comments or questions!
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