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Volunteer Diary

Remembering the Ghana Surgical Mission: Meghan Arnold Shares Her Experience

Meghan Arnold in Ghana

Meghan Arnold, a resident at John Hopkins at the time, volunteered with Humanity First in 2006 and traveled with a few other John Hopkins surgeons and medical staff to Ghana. The mission: provide free surgical operations for as many critical patients as possible in 10 days. The following is her account of the experience.


Despair, sadness and frustration are words to describe the last 48 hours. It started off well enough, but by this afternoon I have become discouraged and whatever wind had been in my sails is gone.

After clinic, Dr. Appeadu-Mensah took us on a tour of the pediatric surgery ward.  I felt like I was walking through a pediatric surgery textbook.  The diversity of cases here would rival that of any large hospital in the US.  The resources, however, are the differentiating factor.  There are very few ventilators and even if a patient gets one, they can usually only stay intubated for a day or two before another patient needs it more.  Survival of the fittest in the 21st century.  The lack of IV nutrition means that children with intestinal abnormalities cannot be fed.  Emaciated children undergoing chemotherapy have no way to stay nutritionally robust.  There was fascination and heartbreak at every bedside.  There’s so much that needs to be done, but no resources to do it.  One could spend a lifetime trying to fix everything in the system that’s broken here.

Meghan Arnold at work

We ate lunch at a local restaurant where I got my first real taste of Ghanaian food.  Fufu with goat light soup.  Fufu is a mixture of plantain and cassava that is pounded together into a white, somewhat sticky paste with a touch of a sweet taste.  As much as I tried to get my fufu served with something else I was told that goat light soup was the way to go.  When in Rome…  While goat doesn’t exactly taste like chicken it wasn’t too bad.  But it wasn’t too good either.  I’ve also learned the hard way that Ghanaians are not afraid of spice.

The 2nd case of the day was to repair a cloacal abnormality in a 1 year old girl.  The surgery was long and at different times Fizan and I were scrubbed to help Dr. Appeadu-Mensah and his fellow with the procedure.  Sean, our surgical tech, scrubbed and was quite a novelty in the OR.  Here, nurses often cover multiple rooms and serve as both a circulator and a tech in all of them.  Surgeons rarely have anyone to hand them instruments and having Sean scrubbed was a blessing.  Not only is he extremely interested in the procedures themselves, but his knowledge of the instruments and the anatomy as well as his anticipation of what will be used next is second to none.  The operation took 7+ hours but went well.  Perhaps most beneficial was the development of trust between Fizan and Dr. Appeadu-Mensah and between Tarek and the anesthesia team – by the end of the day our ideas were being considered and implemented.  We left the hospital as Dr. Appeadu-Mensah and his fellow were closing even though we knew that the baby’s next 12 hours would be crucial for her recovery.

Meghan Arnold at work

I’m writing tonight from the recovery room of the hospital in Dobuase.  Calling this a recovery room, however, might be a stretch.  There is no monitoring.  There are no nurses.  There are no order sheets on which to write for medication.  The medication itself can be obtained from the hospital dispensary (nothing more than a cabinet) and anything other than Tylenol, ibuprofen or a multivitamin is likely only available by purchase from a pharmacy in town.  Because we had such a busy outpatient clinic today there is very little Tylenol left.  Narcotics are never available and are not used – even in postoperative patients.  There is 1 IV pole which must also do 2nd duty in the operating room (OR).  Because there is a step between the OR and the recovery room, patients who cannot walk after surgery must be transported on a stretcher.  The stretcher has no wheels so it must handled carefully with its precious postoperative cargo.  Think MASH.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Words cannot expressed how awed I have been by this experience.  I am awed by the lack of what we Americans consider basic health care resources. I am awed by the observation that few buildings seem to have been built since the British left in 1957.  I am awed by how much advancement needs to be made in the healthcare here – education, infrastructure, and resources.  And yet I am awed by the ability of the doctors to do so much with so little.  I am awed by the hospitality of the Ghanaian people and their willingness to travel hours away from home to be treated by a foreign doctor.

Click Here To Visit Mindy's Exciting 2008 Ghana Mission!


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