Each year James Aikins, Jr., MD, gynecologic oncologist, MD Anderson at Cooper, along with a multidisciplinary team of volunteer physicians, nurses, and other health care providers, spend two weeks treating medically under-served men, women, and children living in and around Ghana in western Africa.
It all started in 2001 when Dr. Aikins’ 23-year-old cousin, Efua, bled to death after giving birth to a healthy baby, a condition known as postpartum hemorrhage. As a complication of childbirth routinely treated in the United States, Dr. Aikins believed her untimely death could have been prevented had proper medical care been available in his native country.
Distressed by this personal tragedy and the country’s overwhelming need for medical resources and expertise in women’s health, Dr. Aikins took action and created the non-profit organization International Healthcare Volunteers (IHCV). He spent the next year planning, coordinating with governments, obtaining supplies, soliciting donations, and recruiting nine colleagues from Cooper University Health Care for what would become his and IHCV’s first medical mission to Ghana in 2002.
Their goal was clear from the start: provide free health care to women, many who had little to no access to specialized services. Women like Ama, who came to the clinic with an untreated hole in her bladder (vesicovaginal fistula) that forced her to live alone in a tiny dwelling behind the family home. After an examination, the care team was quickly able to remedy the condition and repair the hole, giving her back the ability to urinate in the proper way and a chance at a better quality of life.
Over the years, as the number of volunteers interested in donating their time and expertise grew within the walls of Cooper and beyond, the objective of IHCV became twofold: first, provide free medical care and preventative services, ranging from blood pressure checks to HIV and cancer screenings, to as many men, women, and children as possible. Secondly, to equip current and future health care professionals in the local community with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to deliver timely, quality health care throughout the region.
To date, IHCV has treated more than 14,000 people and performed thousands of minor and major procedures, including the country’s first laparoscopic gallbladder surgery. In addition to direct patient care, the group has also participated in continuing medical education through various initiatives including in-hospital residency programs, a lecture series, and national conferences, as well as offering skills training and other educational opportunities for local community health workers.
According to Dr. Aikins, the personal satisfaction of helping people who may not otherwise have had the benefit of expert medical care is immeasurable. Each mission allows the volunteers an opportunity to grow personally and professionally by working outside of their comfort zone in unfamiliar environments. Many return with a deeper empathy for other cultures as well as a renewed spirit. Above all, through their efforts, Efua’s death was given meaning: to save other’s lives.
IHCV’s 19th annual mission to Ghana will take place from July 24 through August 8, 2020. If you wish to be a part of this upcoming trip or if you would like to make a donation, please visit www.ihcv.org/take-action for more information.
During Black History Month, Cooper is reflecting on the legacy of our past and present changemakers. These are the people and the moments that have shaped Cooper, impacting the way we serve, heal, and educate today and tomorrow. These are stories and memories to be told, and we’re excited to share them. Do you have a person or event you would like us to share this month? Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.