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Utah doctors, nurses go global to teach, heal and learn

By Alyson Heyrend

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2012 4:09 p.m. MDT

Children sell food at a highway rest stop outside of Accra, Ghana

Alyson Heyrend

I recently traveled to Ghana with a group of pediatric doctors and nurses from the University of Utah Medical Center. I’d heard of the planned trip from my daughter, a pharmacy student who has done lab research for, among others, Dr. Krow Ampofo, a Ghanaian native and an infectious disease doctor at Primary Children’s Medical Center.

As did all members of the group, I paid my own way. Unlike the medical team, my motives were somewhat selfish. In the aftermath of an emotionally charged, often divisive debate over health care reform in this country, I wanted to go where some positive energy was being directed.

The group, which visited Ghana from May 3-13, consisted of 18 people, including 12 doctors/nurses, as well as two pharmacy students and other family members.

The experience was uplifting beyond my expectations. What I saw was an extraordinary collaboration between medical teaching professionals that has evolved through carefully nurtured relationships over 16 years. It is not a case of a richer country showing a poorer one how to treat patients. Rather, it’s medical colleagues sharing knowledge and skills, building capacity and learning from each other how to strengthen preventive care.

“Money and expertise do not justify someone’s presence in a Third World country,” says Dr. Stephen Alder, chief of the University of Utah's Division of Public Health. “Experience proves that ‘drop-in medicine’ is simply not sustainable.”

Alder has been travelling to Ghana for a dozen years, laying the groundwork for his division’s Global Health Initiative there and in other countries. It is one of the offshoots that grew from the U.’s first forays overseas.

Dr. Devon Hale, assistant dean of International Medical Education, is one of the first supporters. But he says the beginnings were a happy accident. In the 1990s, he was looking for an opportunity for medical students seeking international rotations. His colleagues at the U.’s ophthalmology department — Dr. Alan Crandall and Dr. Robert Hoffman — had been to Africa since the mid-1990s, performing cataract surgery and reversing blindness. To Hale, Ghana looked promising.

But it got off to a rough start.

“On our first trip, we took 89 boxes of supplies — and it was a disaster,” says Hale. “We quickly realized that we were more productive if our goal was centered on an exchange of education and teaching, not providing supplies, equipment or direct patient care.”

He and Dean David Bjorkman looked at U.S. schools working abroad for an existing model. They first partnered with Indiana University at the Moi Medical School in Kenya. Soon after, they started working at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH) in Kumasi, a city of 1.5 million people. It is Ghana’s second largest city, after the capital of Accra, and the modern capital of the country’s Ashanti region.

A medical student named Erin Hinrich was among the first group of 10 students who traveled to Kumasi in 2003. (She was making her third trip in May, as an anesthesiologist with this pediatric group.) On our trip, she was in high demand, assisting pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Bob Hoffman and Ghanaian surgeons and nurses in the operating room as their pediatric anesthesiologist.

In a bare-bones operating room, minus the latest machines and gleaming fixtures of an American surgical suite, I watched as children had eye muscles repaired and vision restored under Hoffman’s steady, deft movements and Hinrich’s watchful eye, guiding and encouraging their African colleagues.

“For me, it’s not about coming for a short period of time, doing a lot of procedures and then leaving. The reward is in being part of something better that remains here as a result of education and training,” Hinrich says.

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