U medical students offer aid to Ghana

By Rachel Stuart, Staff Writer

Bryan Brimhall, a third-year medical student, felt a tug on his arm hair. A young Ghanian boy was staring at it, then compared its color to the dark tones on his own small arm. The U medical student had just finished weighing him and his other 5-year-old friends, and the boy was curious about the doctor with the different hair and skin.
To connect with the child, Brimhall pulled out a camera and took his picture. He and his friends were overwhelmed with excitement.
“We talked and took pictures and had fun together and I took their pictures to show them,” Brimhall said. And if the work of Brimhall and his U colleagues’ in Ghana goes as planned, hopefully the children in the photographs will live long and well enough to show them to their grandchildren.

U There Before He Arrived

President Barack Obama visited Ghana on Saturday to emphasize his approval of the country’s democratic government. In a speech to Ghana’s Parliament, Obama called for continued diligence to improve public health and committed $63 billion to combat diseases such as HIV, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
And the U humanitarian efforts in Ghana line up with the Obama administration’s goals.
The school has led humanitarian efforts focused on health and well-being in Ghana for years. The School of Medicine exchange program, now 8 years old, takes medical students to Ghana during the summer to study at the School of Medical Sciences in Kumasi, Ghana.
Other U programs available in Ghana include public health, family and preventative medicine studies, social work, and political science collaborations.
Liz Knight, a study abroad adviser, explained that the public health students work in health facilities and clinics in Ghana, interacting with patients regularly, while medical students focus more on research.
“Our ultimate aim is to be a catalyst for a new humanitarian approach that facilitates the development of communities to be able to address their own challenges, as well as becoming resources for helping other communities to do the same,” said Stephen Alder, an associate professor of family and preventative medicine and the program director of the public health project in Ghana.
The exchange programs were built on an existing relationship between the U School of Medicine and the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. Alder said that this relationship has benefited both parties, explaining that some of the techniques for approaching medicine and public health they observed in Ghana has been implemented here in Utah.
Devon Hale, the program director of the medical exchange, was in Ghana for part of Obama’s visit. He said that the people of Ghana were very excited that they had been chosen to host the president of the United States’ visit to Africa. Hale said that Ghana has taken great strides to improve its government and serve its people; he sees this dedication to independence, responsibility, and improvement in the medical professionals he meets and serves with.
Alder said that the democratic government of Ghana, “is a significant factor in providing a stable environment within which our collaborative work can progress.”
The respect Ghana has for the United States, as evidenced by the president’s joyful reception when he touched down in the country, makes the work of students and researchers much easier, Alder said.
“It is personally very satisfying to see the work we are doing expand a feeling of good will between the people of the two countries, and thereby be a means of promoting peace,” he said.

U Students Serve to Learn

Students who have participated in the exchange express similar feelings. Brimhall, who traveled to Ghana in July 2008, said the children and families they visited were all welcoming.
While in Ghana, Brimhall helped conduct surveys of families with children under the age of five to determine their level of health awareness and how the parents would react to an illness in their children. Brimhall said the questions focused on malaria, use of vitamin A and diarrhea.
Hale said that these surveys are one of the most important parts of the program. The results of the surveys conducted by Brimhall and his fellow students in 2008 have been brought back to Ghana this year. The medical students currently in Ghana are discussing the results with the villages that participated, helping them assess their community’s health and build on past years’ experiences.
Hale said that programs like these are important because they show students a community that struggles from lack of resources. “To see a culture where things aren’t easy,” is the most important lesson, he said.
Kathy Pope, who is entering the U’s Master’s in public health program, traveled to Ghana after taking a global health class. As a member of the public health exchange program, she helped plot the water sources and permanent structures of rural villages outside Kumasi and interviewed families in the villages about their food intake. Her collected data was combined with demographic maps made in previous years to identify where greater disease outbreaks were occurring.
“I think this is very relevant to understanding the delivery of public health services, issues facing global public health, and a very mind-expanding opportunity,” she said.

Bringing Ghana to American Shores

As the co-president of the student section of the University of Utah Global Health Alliance, Brimhall emphasizes that its programs are truly bidirectional exchanges.
“One misconception some people have is that we are going there as students or otherwise to teach Ghanaians about a better ‘health care’ from America,” Brimhall said, “I feel like I learned more from my Ghanaian colleagues than I ever taught them.”
Alder, also a UUGHA member, said the alliance focuses on “helping communities to help themselves” and has been invited to expand its programs into countries such as China and India.
Brimhall, who was in Ghana during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, said the people he met had great respect for the then-presidential hopeful Obama.
Brimhall said he hoped the President’s visit would showcase the good being done in Ghana. One of the UUGHA’s goals is to promote international involvement and learning, a sentiment Obama echoed in his speech to the Ghanaian Parliament.
Alder explained that the exchange cannot yet support Ghanaian students traveling to Utah, but that partners and medical professionals from Ghana have been able to visit the U in the past. Both Alder and Knight emphasized hopes that the U will be able to expand this international exchange in the future to bring international medical students to Utah.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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