Are You Pregnant or Bloated? A Reflection of a Medical Mission to Ghana

By Alyson Panton

If you were to tell me that I would do anything medical, I would have laughed out in tears. My whole life I have been surrounded by ultrasounds, babies, free HIV testing pens, and scrubs thanks to my OB/GYN mother, Pamela Brug-Panton, M.D.

Yet the thrill of my mother’s career never caught up with me. I wanted to be everything in the book growing up: an archeologist, fashion designer, scientist, actress/ model. Medical doctor was not even number 50 on my list. I guess being so exposed turned into over exposed and the thought of medicine did not appeal to me. It was only this year that I began to consider the field of medicine as a whole. No, it wasn’t a long talk with my mother, an inspiring and profound story on Discovery Channel, nor Gifted Hands by Ben Carson,  but Grey’s Anatomy.  Yes, Dr. Grey, Christina Yang, and “B-A” Alex Karev stole my heart. I don’t know what it was but it was that moment I decided I wanted to become a doctor, a plastic surgeon to be exact. Boobs aside, working with burn victims peaks my interest.

To even further my fascination of the field, I decided to accompany my mother on a new opportunity to be a part of a Medical Mission Trip to Ghana. I always expected my first visit to the “mother continent”   would be to South Africa. My experience in Ghana and with the medical mission team was both life changing and humbling and like nothing I have ever experienced; this is something I want to share with you.

The service of food during my adventure was magnificent, and excluding the fact that my expectations were extremely low. You’re right, I was picturing myself in a four by four hut shared with my mother in a small village outside Cape Coast, Ghana. I prepared myself to butcher a poor goat the supposed village natives raised from young. The food that I ate in Cape Coast did not chirp or moo, but was equally delicious. I was very fortunate and well taken care of in more ways then just the food.  

The food was literally everywhere from the start as we drove from Accra to Cape Coast vendors “traders” would run up to the van windows in hope of persuading us “tourists” to buy one of their delectable goodies, it was quite incorrigible.

I also saw Polio among Ghanaians as I glanced out the van windows. That alone made me think about orthopedics; yet Dr. McSteamy popped into my head that very moment. McDreamys aside, I began to see the need right away, I was shocked. I’ve never seen a case of polio before ever in the dozen countries I’ve traveled to, and polio doesn’t even cover the hundreds of epidemics that impact the country. In Ghana I was able to really see the need in this country face to face and I was opened to a new world with so much to give and so much to get.

In the United States the supply of medical equipment is abundant to an extent, and the technology is growing every day; yet the same is not to say for neighboring and far away countries. Fifty or so bins were brought from the States  by IHCV to Ghana in order to supply all of the doctors and nurses with everything they need in order to perform their jobs successfully.

In Ghana it is very unlikely that doctors will supply their patients with pain medication during recovery, in fact “good strong” painkillers are rarely ever used.  It was important that the patients were comfortable enough to recover and in their mindset  “there’s so much pain”. Such medicines, such as Tylenol and Advil, were given to patients in the absence of “mental recovery” only and accepted with gratitude. These are women after major and I mean major surgery NO oxycodone or morphine but Tylenol and Advil was what they were so happy to receive.

It was unfortunate to find that OB/GYN patients were unable to receive pap smears, and mammograms didn’t have a place in the hospital. When I say examining table I really mean table. Can you imagine getting  your first Gyn exam like that – not me but the Ghanaian women that came to OPD (the outpatient department) did it every day.

Thirty to forty week sized fibroids were notorious in the OR. I’m not talking thirty to forty week sized pregnant woman, more like the thirty to forty week sized cervical/uterine/ovarian mass woman. Yeah that’s right a mass the size of your little baby grew inside many woman in Ghana.  In contrast, the woman in my home town would have been fortunate enough to get tested, see it coming, have surgery, and be done with it instead of going along until your belly tears open due to intensive stretching.

It truly amazed me that it was somewhat…normal to walk around with a stomach the size of a watermelon.  I guess that’s the difference between an underserved population such as Ghana and an advantageous society where I live.

My experience cannot be summed up into words and what I have taken back with me cannot be written on paper, yet getting in quarrels with friends over petty complaining does happen often. When you return from a place that needs so much but welcomes you and greets you with a genuine smile you have to complain about the superficiality of the society we live in. In a place where there is so little, I received so much those two weeks.

Though there is much to do in Ghana there is also much to do within myself as well. I now and then catch myself complaining about not getting a car of my own, or not getting these new pair of boots I saw in a magazine, or not being able to go to a party, yet it’s time to stop getting; just give, and shut up, so I will be the one with the genuine smile, the heart bigger than a mass, and open arms. I came back a different person after  that ten-hour flight, and Ghana is a place I will never ever forget and it has changed my life for the better and forever.