Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Ghana

By Vera Wunsche
Yale University
Global Impact Fellow

I volunteered for almost nine weeks with Unite For Sight in Accra and Kumasi, Ghana. I had previously spent five weeks in Nice, France, interning at a children’s hospital. The transition between these two programs could not have been more different! I came from a country that provides its citizens with the best overall health care in the world to a country that is not only confronted with a shortage of resources, but also with difficulties to provide access to the few available resources. Yet, what Ghana lacks in material goods, it makes up for in incredibly motivated and dedicated health care professionals who are willing to work as hard as possible to compensate for this scarcity.

During my time in Ghana, I worked with three eye clinics in Accra and one eye clinic in Kumasi. The relentless energy, optimism and enthusiasm exhibited by the doctors and their teams were unbelievable and truly awe-inspiring. I have never witnessed such selflessness and commitment to and love for work. I was also very impressed by the integrity of the people that I worked with – some of their personal stories were incredibly moving and explained their professional ardor. Ernest – an optometrist working for the Crystal Eye Clinic in Accra – for instance, won a scholarship to attend one of the best Ghanaian high schools, where he would sometimes go hungry because he spent his money on textbooks instead of food. Dr. Twumasi, the director of the eye clinic in Kumasi, shared another inspiring story with me: apart from his clinic duties and the numerous outreaches he participates in, he also tries to provide students and poorer families in remote areas with pencils, paper and text books as well as clothes – such simple items that we take for granted but that are unobtainable for them.

The work with the different teams was very enlightening. They were all run slightly differently but they all aimed for the same goal: to see and treat as many patients as possible. Dr. Baah of the Save the Nation’s Sight Clinic, for instance, splits his team up into three to four groups at a time. All groups work in the same general area, which allows them to accommodate patients who live in remote regions. The other three clinics do not split up their groups but instead see more patients at a time. This way, a given team can see up to 200 patients in a day (which is 400 eyes!!) and try to even out the disparities between rural and urban health care provision. All in all, I realized the importance of the collaboration of the clinics with the local "volunteers" (stipended community eye health workers). The clinics’ teams depend on the local volunteers to spread the word of the clinics’ visits. The local volunteers are also crucial when it comes to communication. There are 79 languages in Ghana, and the locals mediate between the clinics and the patients to overcome the language barriers.

While Global Impact Fellow volunteers participate in outreaches most of the time, they also sometimes observe surgeries in the clinics. Watching Dr. Clarke perform his 40th cataract surgery of the day was just like watching him perform the first one. He was as steady and calm at the end of a tiring day, without any personal breaks as he was at the beginning. When he was operating, Dr. Clarke also always made sure that we understood what we were observing, so I learned a lot about eye diseases and eye care in general.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my stay was to witness the patients’ truly grateful and appreciative reactions towards the clinics’ work and the presence of the Global Impact Fellow volunteers. On numerous occasions, the villagers had prepared lunch for us to thank us. They were always delighted to teach us about their beliefs and respective language, and I was thankful that the Ghanaians I met during my stay shared their culture with me.

My time in Ghana was illuminating in several ways: on the one hand, I learned about a different part of the world with a different cultural system. The Ghanaians have a different pace of life, and their life is more community based – something that is, in my opinion, worth emulating. On the other hand, I learned a lot about myself and my own personal values, priorities, hopes and aspirations. After college, I hope to go to medical school to become either a general physician or to specialize in OG/ GYN. My experiences in Ghana helped confirm my beliefs that these two areas of medicine are needed the most, whether in Ghana, the US or Germany. My summer experience with Unite For Sight in Ghana changed my outlook on my future and my attitude about the way we interact with other people.