September 25, 2017
By Greg Peters
Alfred Jacob Aidoo, M.D., and Katie Stakolich were perfect strangers living a world apart before tragedy brought them together late last year. Now a gesture of gratitude has helped bring the two face to face in a surprise meeting at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Aidoo, an anesthesiologist in the Accident and Emergency Unit of the 1,200-bed Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH) in Kumasi, Ghana, cared for Stakolich's mother, Sandy Pope, when she was involved in a car crash last November and died five weeks later.
"Some days, it seemed like he was with her 24 hours," Stakolich posted on Facebook. "The night my mom passed away, Alfred called me and said I needed to talk to mom. He put me on his speakerphone and held it to her ear. I was able to tell her how much we all loved her and how proud I was to call her my mom.
"She passed away listening to my voice and Alfred was holding her hand. I couldn't ask for a better person to be by my mom's side in her last moments on this Earth."
Shocked and nearly speechless at meeting her in person for the first time, Aidoo embraced Stakolich in an emotional hug lasting several minutes as the two whispered to each other after meeting for the first time. The surprise encounter on the Health Education Building bridge was arranged in large part by Karen Schell, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Respiratory Care Education in the KU School of Health Professions. Schell met Aidoo last spring on a medical education trip to Ghana, and the three became friends via Facebook.
"There are things words can't really express," said Aidoo who is in the United States as an international fellow of the American Association of Respiratory Care (AARC). "It meant everything to meet her."
"I tell everyone, he's my angel," said Stakolich, who flew to Kansas City from her home in Fair Oaks, California. "Without him, I would have broken. He was always there, even on my worst days when I was about to give up. Alfred is my hero."
A hero and a champion
While Aidoo is Stakolich's hero, Schell and the rest of the respiratory care community hope that he can also be their champion on the ground in Ghana. There are currently no practicing respiratory care therapists in the West African country with 28 million residents. The hope is that Aidoo, a man of seemingly boundless enthusiasm, can play a key role in the effort to have the government recognize the profession, so hospitals can start hiring respiratory therapists and universities can continue educating them.
"Coming to the United States, he will be exposed to all the possibilities for respiratory care," Schell said. "It's hard to explain to him what all respiratory therapists can do given the limited resources they have in Ghana right now. They don't have respiratory therapists, so they don't know what our profession is."
Schell and Lisa Trujillo, her counterpart from Weber State University, have been providing humanitarian aid and medical education in Ghana for the past 11 years through their nonprofit, Charity Beyond Borders. During the past six years, they have helped develop a bachelor's degree in respiratory care in Ghana, which is one of the first in Africa. The bachelor's degree program at the University of Ghana has nine students who are in their third semester, and another cohort of students is slated to start this fall.
Earlier this summer, Schell, Trujillo and Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, dean of the School of Health Professions, took part in a program in Accra where Ghanaian government and hospital officials voiced support for respiratory care. It was during this time that the Ecobank Foundation of Ghana announced it would be providing $30,000 during the next five years for scholarships to train respiratory therapy students. Those students and more like them need a champion such as Aidoo to help hospitals understand the roles and benefits of respiratory therapists.
"Medical missions and outreach programs do good work, but we need to train our people to continue the good works after they leave," said Aidoo, who also serves as a pastor for Lighthouse Chapel International and is a founder of the charity, Springs of Hope International. "It's good to give people fish, but it is better to train them how to catch fish themselves."
Aidoo says the need for respiratory care professionals in Ghana, where doctor-to-patient ratios can range as high as 10,000 to 1, is obvious. Resources are spread thin, and physicians routinely practice in areas beyond their specialties. Having respiratory care professionals to treat common conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and children born with respiratory distress would be a blessing.
"I have people who really want to join this program," Aidoo said. "Almost every day people ask me when it is going to start. The next step is for people who are calling the shots to make the decision that this is where we are going."
As a fellow, Aidoo will spend time at both KU Medical Center and at Weber State before heading to the AARC National Convention. This isn't Aidoo's first trip to KU Medical Center. He visited a friend in the anesthesiology department in 2016, and shortly thereafter KATH and KU Medical Center signed a collaboration agreement.
Schell and Trujillo will be returning to Ghana in November, and in the meantime, Aidoo plans to double down on his efforts to set meetings with officials, paving the way for a second bachelor's degree program and the creation of respiratory therapy as a profession there.
Coming to America
The seeds of Aidoo's most recentvisit to KU Medical Center were sown this summer when Schell first met him while her Charity Beyond Borders team was visiting KATH and its affiliated school, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Aidoo had arranged for the visitors to meet with focus groups from various parts of the hospital. Schell and Trujillo were so impressed by their newfound friend's enthusiasm, they suggested he apply to be an international fellow of the AARC.
Schell and Aidoo subsequently became Facebook friends, and that's where she saw the heart-felt post from Stakolich. Schell was so moved by the post, which reached 300,000 people and attracted more than 500 comments, she felt compelled to contact Stakolich.
"You have to know Alfred, he's a very kind man with a very big heart," Schell said. "He's just this generous, kind soul who opens his heart to everybody."
When Alfred's trip was confirmed, Schell offered her home as a place for Stakolich to stay in order to meet Aidoo. And so a plan was launched.
What had begun as a random Facebook message from Schell, led to phone calls and before long, Stakolich was booking a flight to Kansas City to meet the Good Samaritan she only knew as a voice on the other end of a telephone and a face on the internet.
"He didn't just help our family, he changed our family," said Stakolich. "He changed the way I want to live my life. He changed how I want my kids to live their lives. He changed how I look at the world."
Even after Pope died, Aidoo continued to go out of his way to help Stakolich get her mother's hospital bill reduced and battled bureaucratic red tape so that her remains could be returned to the family in a timely manner.
"This is me, I'm just a simple guy," said Aidoo. "This what I do and I think human beings should do. This is the basic thing that any physician should know how to do. I don't need to be thanked. I did what had to be done by anyone who cares about life."
For Stakolich and her family, Aidoo has already proven to be a hero. Now the hope is that he can return to Ghana and champion the benefits of respiratory therapy education throughout the Kumasi area and beyond in Africa.