We Come Bearing Gifts

We Come Bearing Gifts
Photo by lightsoutfilms under a Creative Commons license: BY-NC-SA

Saturday, March 31, 2012
Emma Lawrence
Emma Lawrence

It was by default that M1 student Emma Lawrence ended up in Ghana -- the first time, that is. As an undergraduate looking for an international service project in 2006, the organization she went through matched her with an opportunity to teach English in a Ghanaian orphanage. Her experience had such a profound effect on her that the next summer she dragged a few friends with her.

“That experience transformed my world vision and what I wanted to do with my career, and I saw that same transformation in my peers,” Lawrence reminisces.

Subsequent trips to Ghana developed into a pattern. Volunteer recruitment was easy; collaborations grew over time. The first return to Ghana was greeted with “Ah, you came back.” Then it was, “Ah, you came back again, let’s talk. And the next time it was, “So, you came back again. Let me introduce you to my friend.”

During these trips, Lawrence and her fellow students spent a great deal of time shadowing in hospitals, splitting time between urban Kumasi and rural Lawra in northern Ghana. It seemed everywhere they went, they observed the absence of basic medical equipment such as ultrasound and x-ray machines, and shortages of supplies like syringes and sutures. Lawrence recalls, “We saw patients turned away simply because there was no gauze available.” That seemed ridiculous to her, knowing that good, usable medical equipment was routinely being thrown away in the United States.

Community members gather to unload donated hospital beds at the Lawra District Hospital in Northern Ghana

Community members gather to unload donated hospital beds at the Lawra District Hospital in Northern Ghana

Impassioned, she entered the world of medical supply recovery. In 2009, she co-founded the non-profit organization MedPlus Connect, which creates a direct link between under-resourced health care systems in Ghana and recovered medical supplies in the US. Local hospitals identify their exact needs, and MedPlus Connect fills the order. From sophisticated medical equipment to pallets of consumable medical supplies, they have distributed more than 100,000 pounds of medical goods to Ghana and expect to double that amount in 2012. The Ministry of Health (MOH) covers the costs of shipping. According to Lawrence, “The MOH got on board because our early collaborators could vouch for us. We made small commitments at first, but honored them. And we weren’t giving them useless supplies or equipment to feed their landfills instead of ours. Like the Michigan-Ghana platform, we were building our own mini-platform.”

Donated surgical equipment gets rushed from shipping container to operating room at the Nandom District Hospital

Donated surgical equipment gets rushed from shipping container to operating room at the Nandom District Hospital

Lawrence’s work has not gone unnoticed. Last fall, she received the Velji Leadership Award for Emerging Leaders in Global Health, which was presented at the 2011 Global Health Conference and Consortium of Universities for Global Health meetings in Montreal. “It has certainly put me on folks’ radar and given me earlier exposure and connections than I might have expected,” she notes. “It’s great to feel a part of the global health network.”

In summer 2012, when Lawrence returns to Ghana for the 9th time, she wears a new hat. She goes as a medical researcher working on a fetal assessment and monitoring project. Oh, and she’ll be taking with her 17 state-of-the-art fetal heart monitors and an ultrasound machine - all retrofitted for use in Ghana.

 

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