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Megan Johnson in Ghana

Megan with snakeSeveral months before my study away experience to Ghana I switched my major from Elementary Education to Biology with the intention of continuing on with medical school after completing my bachelor’s degree. My main purpose for choosing the ISEP-direct Ghana program was to do an internship working at a local hospital, not necessarily for the academic course work but the experience.

After spending a few weeks traveling throughout the Middle East, I arrived in Ghana ready for my week-long orientation. Having traveled to third world countries before helped me deal with the cultural adjustments. Most of the "differences" were not new to me. I had experienced horrible public transportation, different foods, smelly marketplaces, language barriers, poverty, digestion problems, huge spiders, getting lost, and being the first white person a child had seen before.

The one thing I never got use to was being cat-called everywhere I went. For whatever reason, most Ghanaians feel compelled to shout, "obruni, obruni, obruni…" meaning "white person" when a foreigner goes by. With a smile, they are unable to keep to themselves. It happened literally everywhere I went- marketplaces, restaurants, walking to class, on the bus…etc. but finally I started getting use to it and shouted back, "Ghanaian, Ghanaian, Ghanaian…" and they laughed, making the annoying situation humorous.

Kids in GhanaWhatever my expectations were about academics, I found them to be nothing like I imagined. The general approach towards teaching and examination is not like UAS or most universities in the states. For example, I took a Golden Age Spanish Drama course. For the exam, I was required to provide quotes from the play, which supported my written arguments. However, I was not allowed to bring any materials into the exam, nor did I have any idea what the questions were ahead of time. This meant that I had to go through the play and memorize quotes I felt were important, in hopes that a few would match up with the questions asked.

Classes are lecture based, with minimal discussions. One hundred percent of my grade was based on the final exam, meaning all of the work required during the semester didn’t count towards my grade other than to help learn the material.

The most valuable aspect of my study away experience was working at the local hospital. Ironically, my first encounter with the hospital was a personal one. I contracted malaria ten days after arriving and had to stay overnight in the local hospital. At that point, I was pretty terrified of the place. None of the bathrooms had toilet paper or soap or at times, running water, which is common locally, but in a hospital? The hospital also didn’t provide anything, including food and water. The nurse had to take my money, walk up the street to a vendor and buy me water so I could take my medication. Interesting, uh?

I began my internship at a public, government hospital shortly after starting classes. I was assigned to the pediatric and maternity wards, exactly what I asked for. Pediatrics and obstetrics are my two main interests.

Hospital experiences in Ghana are extremely different from the US for so many reasons and those first few weeks were both shocking and exciting. In the states, people come for strep throat, a broken bone, the flu, a pregnancy, high blood pressure, etc. In Ghana, people come in because of malaria, HIV/AIDS, sickle cell crisis and major infections. Within my first hour in the hospital I saw death, a baby with a fatal infection in the umbilical cord. I spent part of my time on the wards and the other with the doctors consulting outpatients. Both were educational, and I learned a lot about the issues children and women face, as well as how public hospitals are run and how patients are treated. Most of the healthcare staff was fantastic. They were patient, nonjudgmental and understanding. I found the majority of the doctors and nurses working on the pediatric ward were wonderful, genuinely caring about how to help the children.

The midwives were a different story entirely. They tended to be rude, impatient, judgmental and sometimes cruel to the pregnant women. During a delivery, I heard one of the midwives comment, "This is your fourth child. You shouldn’t have any more children since you have no money and aren’t married." I ended up writing my paper on this issue precisely- analyzing how midwives treat their patients and looking at some of the reasons for this behavior.

Market of goodsI know that this hospital experience will make me a better doctor someday. I saw wonderful examples of people who I admire and examples of who I never want to be. I was warmly received by both the patients and the staff and got to observe so many more things than I suspect I’d see as an intern in the states. Obviously my experience had numerous ups and downs. It was wonderful to see a family go home after being in the hospital for six weeks, to watch a toddler’s burns heal or to see the birth of a healthy baby. However, the other aspects were not as happy. Kids died, babies were stillborn or born with abnormalities. I have grown a lot and I know I will be forever grateful for the experience.

Ghana is a wonderful place full of unique people and places to visit. The opportunity allowed me to travel all around Ghana as well as to Togo and Benin. All had something special to offer me. Whether it was a voodoo market in Lomé, a canopy walk in Kakum National Park, millipedes under my bed, bush meat stew, a witch camp near Bolgatanga, a hippo sanctuary in the Upper West, or a broken down minibus in the middle of the rainforest, life in West Africa is rich and full of chances to learn and grow.