Heather VanAgtmael - Nurse in Ghana
Akwabba! My name is Heather “Yaa” VanAgtmael or as every other white foreigner in Ghana will be called in a non-derogatory manner, simply “obroni”! After graduating with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing in May 2012, I knew the most immediate thing on my mind was to begin my career serving impoverished populations in a country near to my heart, which I grew to love after an exchange program back in 2007. The day couldn’t come soon enough for me to pack my things, board the airplane, and leave everything behind while I adventured off for almost five months, three of which with Projects Abroad, in pursuit of my dream!
One might assume that with this being my second time in the country, there is little more cultural experiences I could gain but clearly I was in for a more in depth appreciation and understanding of a country with the friendliest representation of African people I could ever meet. Furthermore, this proved to be an opportunity to discover who I am as a person and explore paths for a future in international healthcare.
Projects Abroad provided the perfect answer to taking the initial step in volunteering within the medical profession overseas. It not only exposed me to the Ghanaian healthcare system through working in various units of the hospital and participating in weekly medical outreach programs, but also allowed for a multicultural experience in that the social aspect of the organization introduces you to people from all over the world that instantly become your roommates, co-workers, support systems, and travel partners!
Weekly quiz nights were a time to gather with all the other volunteers in the area to share snacks, stories, get to know each other and the Projects Abroad staff, arrange for weekend travel or a night out in town, or even participate in a soccer match with the locals or learn how to prepare traditional Ghanaian cuisine.
I took the unique approach in requesting my time be split between Cape Coast and “the Hills”, allowing me to discover two different regions of Ghana, live with two exceptional host families, obtain two different work experiences, and grow to love the country even more!
In Cape Coast, I lived about a 10 minute walk from Central Regional Hospital. I spent my time assisting nurses with taking vital signs, distributing medications, completing basic charting, minor care procedures, providing newborn care, running to the lab, accompanying patients to x-ray or ultrasound, and observing the doctors during medical rounds (some variations might exist depending on your qualifications).
You have the option to spend time in units of your choice- my priority was Pediatrics, NICU, and Maternity with my final few days in the E.R. but there are nearly a dozen to choose from! In each, I found the staff to really be supportive of my presence if I was willing to engage in activities, ask questions concerning patient conditions, come prepared and stayed the duration of my shift (typically 0800-1400), and chose not to stand idly in the corner socializing with other volunteers who might be assigned to the same unit. Throughout my two months at this location, I became more confident and comfortable participating in nursing care and was seen as a valued member among the Ghanaian medical team!
This medical outreach was attending Ankaful Leprosy Camp, where we dressed chronic wounds of people suffering from consequences of the disease. Although some attention was given to children with minor cuts, the primary population served was older adults who presented with deformed extremities and open sores that wouldn’t heal. A highlight of my time was playing with the children between clients, whether it is bringing toys, clothes, or snacks to donate or just holding them to put a smile on their face! Also taking the time to visit James, who is a painter in the village that likes to sell his artwork to volunteers to support the camp!
Next I moved to Akropong-Akuapem Hills, which is a small town located about a 20 minute taxi ride to Tettah Quarshie Memorial Hospital. I had just one month here which was split between the Maternity Ward and the Pediatric Ward / Outpatient Pediatric Department. I was involved in many of the same tasks as in Cape Coast, with the addition of observing cesarean sections and multiple natural births, providing all initial newborn care and measurements, completing admission paperwork, and doing intake procedures in the OPD.
I found the staff extremely welcoming and interested in healthcare in the United States, often initiating conversations about my experiences. I think with me being the only medical volunteer in the hospital, it allowed for us to develop a closer relationship and sense of trust for me to gain more out of my experience!
The hills’ medical outreach program consisted of going to a different outreach location once a week, which included attending daycares/ primary schools to dress wounds, treat fungal infections, and teach the children how to brush their teeth and holding a Hepatitis B screening and educational seminar for parents of a local community! They were a lot of fun and made me feel like I was reaching out to distant communities in need of our services!
My favorite work experiences include the rescue of an elderly man who unbeknown to us at the time, lived adjacent to the Leprosy Camp where we had gone everyday over the previous six weeks until his story cried out for help. He was immobile and was being poorly cared for by his family. The result was a severely infected pressure ulcer. I remember getting him cleaned up, using his bed sheet to transport him into the backseat of the taxi where he laid across my lap, pushing the other two volunteers at the time to share the front seat of the car, and taking off on one of the wildest makeshift ambulance rides through town!
We stayed by his side in the E.R. until he was transferred to the unit but it was learned about a week later he had passed away. Although the outcome is not successful, I do know that we gave him a quality ending of life where he could at least rest in peace and not spend his final days in pain.
My second favorite moment came about through another volunteer’s donation that she asked me to be a part of. We donated medicine in high demand to a distant village that could only be reached by foot along the ocean front sand. It was my first time seeing such poverty and walking through what we typically think of as an African village. We distributed medicine based on complaints of the locals, educated them on usage with the help of local translators, and were even introduced to the chief! This was really just one of those eye opening things that I will never forget as people were so appreciative of even receiving vitamins for their child!
Another is when a cute elderly woman looked at me and grabbed my hand saying “Nyame sho”, which I later found out meant “God bless you!” It’s times like this where I took a step back to stop and reflect on the impact I was creating in other’s lives! Among priceless other moments I had, these are the things I will cherish forever! My time in Ghana was well spent and is only the beginning to many more global healthcare opportunities to come! A big thanks to Projects Abroad Ghana… Read more about my experience by visiting my blog at http://seedsofasecretdream.blogspot.com