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Cooper doctor leads journey to provide medical equipment and care to his homeland of Ghana Every summer, Dr. James Aikins, a Cooper University Hospital gynecological oncologist, packs his bags and makes a much-anticipated trip to the Cape Coast of Ghana - the place of his birth.
The pilgrimage leaves Aikins little, if any, time for visiting relatives, however. Instead, Aikins and dozens of other medical professionals recruited through his nonprofit International Healthcare Volunteers spend two weeks providing desperately needed medical and surgical services to hundreds of Ghanaians.
The group provides everything from basic diabetes counseling and medication to major gynecological surgeries.
"People come from all over the place. They come from as far away as 250 miles to get care," said Aikins, who, along with 28 other volunteers, will depart Friday for IHCV's fourth medical mission.
This year's staff will include gynecologists, an obstetrician, pediatrician, oncologist, general surgeon, anesthesiologist, cardiologist and several other specialists and nursing personnel. When they aren't treating patients, the volunteers will lecture and train Ghanaian medical professionals in new procedures and on how to use the donated equipment they will leave behind.
"All the doctors involved help secure supplies in their various disciplines," explained Dr. Tom Westover, a Cooper gynecologist specializing in maternal fetal medicine. This will be Westover's second year with the mission. Last year, he took an ultrasound machine, which allowed him and doctors at Cape Coast District Hospital to identify obstetric problems typically undetected.
"We saw many cases where the babies were coming out asphyxiated because they weren't receiving adequate oxygen in the placenta and (the hospital) didn't have the technology to know how the baby was doing inside," Westover said.
This year, Westover has secured a portable ultrasound machine that, along with other equipment, will be left at the hospital when the American medical staff departs
Said Aikens, "We estimate about $40,000 in equipment has been donated." A portable ventilator, an electric cardio machine and diabetes and hypertension medicine are on the list. Surgical clothing and other supplies also will be left in Ghana.
The donations came from a variety of sources, including Cooper Hospital and pharmaceutical companies Ethicon and SonoSite. Most of the supplies were airlifted in by World Vision, an organization that supports medical missions around the globe.
Last year, IHCV's 18-member medical team treated 700 patients and performed 50 surgeries. Aikins estimates this year's team will treat significantly more patients. Still, he said the group will be able to provide only a scintilla of the care Ghanaians need.
The average Ghanaian earns less than $1 a day, according to the World Health Organization, and the country has no health insurance system so most aren't able to afford care.
Thirty percent of Ghana's trained medical professionals leave to practice in other countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That dearth leaves just six doctors per 100,000 citizens in Ghana.
By comparison, the United States has 239 physicians per 100,000 citizens. Ghana's lack of health care providers makes accessing care difficult even for those residents who can afford to pay for services.
Aikins, who attended the Medical College of Pennsylvania, is among the doctors who left Ghana for the United States. He did so because he wanted to practice a medical specialty and such training was not offered by Ghana's medical schools. That was nearly 20 years ago and, like many of his peers, Aikins became comfortable with the standard of living and enamored by the opportunities offered here.
But Aikins also continued to harbor a desire to use his skills to help his country. That desire became a driving mission in 2001, when a family member died while giving birth at Cape Coast District Hospital.
"I was visiting my family and I saw my cousin's daughter and she was expecting," explained Aikins. "I jokingly said, `Don't deliver now, because I'm an oncologist and I won't know what to do.' The following day, I left to go to Accra."
When he returned three days later, Aikins learned his younger cousin had bled to death during delivery. Angry, he visited the hospital to talk with doctors there and find out what had gone wrong. What he discovered was an understaffed facility with no obstetrician to handle deliveries.
"The babies are delivered by midwives and even nurses," he said. "If there is a problem, they will call a doctor, but normally they aren't specialists."
The doctor Aikins spoke with at Cape Coast was saddened by the family's lost, but brutally honest about Ghana's pressing medical needs. "He said, `We need help. We need people like you to come and help out,' " Aikins said.
When he returned to his home in Robbinsville, Mercer County, Aikins spent the next several months setting up IHCV's nonprofit status and recruiting volunteer medical personnel and sponsors of the mission. The organization's first mission to Ghana took place in 2002. Nine volunteers went along and they treated 200 patients.
Aikins is working to expand his organization's missionary efforts with trips to Spanish Town, Jamaica, and a yet-to-be-determined area of South America later this year. But as dedicated as he is to the missions, Aikins' greatest wish is that Ghana and other countries will soon no longer need medical mission services. He sees reasons to remain hopeful.
"The (Ghanaian) government is setting up specialty training at the University of Ghana Medical School (in Accra) and at the (Kwame Nkrumah) University of Science and Technology School of Medical Sciences (in Kumasi)," Aikins said. "I think that's going to answer a couple of the problems because most physicians won't feel like they'll have to leave the country to specialize."