Three Months Volunteering in Ghana


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Elizabeth tending to a patient at St Joseph's Hospital in Nkwanta, Ghana

Elizabeth Byrne first shared with us when she had been in Ghana for only two weeks. She has now returned home to Ireland and shares a more detailed account of the three months she spent volunteering at St Joseph's Hospital in Nkwanta.

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My name is Elizabeth Byrne and I am from Wicklow.  I have been a nurse for quite a number of years and have always wanted to do some volunteer work in Africa, but family commitments, work and life in general meant that the opportunity to fulfil this dream came to me a little later than to other volunteers.

In April 2018 I went to Ghana, in West Africa, and spent three months working in one of the OLA hospitals there.  I flew from Dublin to Accra, the capital, via Amsterdam and arrived safely. The minute I stepped out of the plane I was struck by the heat of Africa, even though it was almost 10pm.

Sr Georgina and her driver met me at the airport and we spent the night in the OLA house. The next morning after breakfast and stopping off  to get  supplies, we set off on a 7--8 hr road journey. Thank God the truck had air-conditioning!  Our destination was Nkwanta in the Central Volta Region of Ghana. Nkwanta is a remote village near the border of the neighbouring country of Toga.  At first the road surface was okay, but the further we travelled from the city, the rougher it became.  In places large craters filled with water dotted the roads, making driving conditions extremely hazardous.

We passed through many small villages as well as customs check points along the way. Due to the tropical climate, the countryside was very green with Palm and Mango trees lining the sides of the roads. The soil looked very red and very poor. 

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A small village we passed

We eventually arrived at St. Josephs Catholic Hospital where I was to work. It is a small hospital comprising an emergency department , outpatients (OPD) clinic, eye clinic, ante-natal clinic, labour ward, male and female medical wards, surgical ward, children’s ward and an operating theatre. It also had a well stocked pharmacy, laboratory and medical records area. The staff were very friendly and almost all of them spoke English. After a general tour. I went on medical rounds to see the wards and the varoius conditions patients had been admitted to the hospital with .

My work day started at 7:30am and at that time of the morning the waiting area would be almost full with patients who had travelled/walked through the night to attend the hospital. After prayers and hymns, which they all participated in, the day’s work would begin.

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Part of the waiting area

In the emergency department in the Irish hospital where I worked, adult and paediatric patients are seen in two completely separate departments, but in Nkwanta both are seen in the one department. At first I felt a bit out of my comfort zone, especially when looking after small babies, but the staff were very helpful and I soon became adept at treating these small children.  The vast majority of both adult and paediatric patients suffered from malaria in one form or another. Diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and other infections were very common in adults and quite a few were treated for snake bites .Often the children with malaria were malnourished and neglected and had other, associated conditions. Many had been treated with home or local remedies or by faith healers before they came to the hospital, and often the full history of the illness was not initially shared. The adults would attend prayer camps for days, hospital was the last resort and so by the time they were admitted, they were already very ill.

Fortunately the hospital was well stocked with medicines and antibiotics to treat the conditions. The same could  not be said of the equipment in the hospital.  There were no cardiac monitors, no ECG machines and no defibrillators.

Patients were assessed very quickly by nurses, a token history taken, vital signs checked, blood samples taken, and treatment commenced prior to being seen by a doctor. The nurses were very experienced, competent and very much relied upon by the medical team. The patients were treated in underequipped facilities in difficult circunstances where staff often had to improvise with treatments.

The work was not physically hard, but the heat and the humidity combined, meant that I became easily tired until I acclimatised. I found it difficult to deal with the fact that many children and young adults who would most likely have survived had they been treated in Ireland, died in the hospital in Nkwanta.

A tragic example is that of a 22yr old male with gastroenteritis and intestinal bleeding.  He was transfused with blood, but the hospital did not have the facility to perform a gastroscopy which was needed to determine the cause of the bleed.  His family could not raise the money to facilitate transfer to another hospital and sadly, he died.

Young children were brought in by their parents, or in many cases, a grandparent, in very weak condition and would receive urgent treatment, but would not survive. Often, depending on their religion or customs, the body of the child was wrapped up, placed on the parent or grandparent’s back, and taken home to be buried the same day. When someone died the family grieved, but they were very accepting of it, and believed that it was God’s will. 

On the opposite side many patients and relatives were so grateful for any help or treatment received, they would come to say thank-you and pray for us.

The people of Ghana are very happy in their general disposition.  They’re extremely patient, waiting for hours without complaining, for their turn to be seen. They are happy with their lot, even though they are poor, and trust that God will provide. Family is their priority and they work hard to provide for them.  They are always on alert for new ways to make money!

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Waiting to be seen by medical staff

The children are very affectionate, but initially a white person is viewed as strange, a novelty and a little suspicious, but as they relax they love to wave, say hello and to touch your white skin.

There are many religions in Ghana, and the people are open about what they believe.  They are not afraid to attend whichever church they have chosen, and are more than willing to invite you to attend also .

The OLA sisters are involved in the hospital but also very involved in providing education, especially to young females, in order to break the cycle of poverty that often follows early marriage.  

My experience has made me more patient, more thankful for what I have, and has taught me to live more in the moment and enjoy the here and now. I would like to thank the OLA Sisters for their kindness and help during my stay in Ghana.