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KU School of Health Professions alumnus Karen Schell is bringing better health care to Ghana

March 05, 2015

By Greg Peters

Karen Schell

Mention the country of Ghana to Karen Schell, DHSc, BSRC, and her eyes begin to twinkle. As director of cardiopulmonary services at Newman Regional Health in Emporia, respiratory care is her vocation, but helping the people of Ghana is her passion.

During the past four years, providing aid to Ghana has become a driving force for Schell, a 1992 alumna of the Department of Respiratory Care Education at the University of Kansas School of Health Professions. But Schell hasn't limited her service to Ghana to mission trips; she is changing the way health care is provided in this developing West African nation.  

Schell has teamed with Lisa Trujillo, DHSc, RRT, an assistant professor at Weber State University in Utah, to create Ghana's first bachelor's degree program in respiratory care. The program will launch this fall at the University of Ghana with 10 students - a first for the school and a first for the country.  

"It's overwhelming," Schell said. "I was just fortunate to meet up with such a wonderful person. We've just fed off of each other."  

"Karen has been a strong force in this program development," Trujillo said. "Each visit we have, Karen is by my side, and together we have worked tirelessly to move the respiratory therapy program forward."  

Ghana by chance  

Schell says finding her way to Ghana was as much by happenstance as by design. After earning her bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy from KU, she started her career in Emporia working nights and progressed through several positions before her department head moved on and recommended her as a replacement.  

"After I became director, I knew I needed more education, so I enrolled in master's program in health science online through NOVA Southeastern University," said Schell, who completed her master's in 2006 and her doctorate in 2012.  

While taking one of her doctoral classes, Schell noticed the name of a fellow student that sounded familiar. She recognized Trujillo, who was doing mission trips to Ghana, as someone she had been reading about in a national respiratory care magazine.  

"My husband was retiring, and we were thinking about doing mission trips," Schell said. "So I emailed and asked her a lot of questions: 'How do you get started? How do you get connections?' We had big conversations back and forth, and finally she said, 'Why don't you just go with us next year? You can come with us to Ghana.'"  

Off to Ghana  

So in 2011, the Schells headed to Ghana along with Trujillo's group, Charity Beyond Borders (for which Schell now serves as a board member). Trujillo has been leading mission trips to Ghana for the past 10 years, and because the groups travel throughout the country, participants experience a wide variety of health care environments from rural to urban.  

The group travels the country doing clinicals, community education and health screenings.  They teach things as basic as showing patients how to brush their teeth, nutrition and general hygiene. There is no such thing as a typical day other than they begin their days before sunrise and return home after the sun has gone down.  

"Some of the areas up north are kind of primitive, so it's an adventure for us because we have to ask permission from the chief so we can come into the community to teach," she said.  

The need for respiratory therapy   

On Schell's second trip to Ghana in 2012, she and Trujillo met Audrey Forson, M.D., a pulmonologist at the University of Ghana, and she and Trujillo invited her to apply to be a fellow at a respiratory association national convention. Forson received the fellowship and attended the convention where she gained new perspectives about respiratory care.  

"She was overwhelmed with what respiratory therapists can do in the United States," said Schell, who sees a great need for respiratory professionals in Ghana. "She wanted them in her country. She wanted the training that she saw here to come to her country because of the need."  

Trujillo had built a similar respiratory program in China, so the basic framework was in place when they made the pitch to officials in Ghana. Once they got the sign-offs from the school, the hospital and government officials, the dean and hospital representatives came to Weber State to see Trujillo's program in action. A collaboration was formed, and by the time the group traveled to Ghana in 2013, a curriculum had been written and was in the process of being approved by the Ministry of Health and the university.  

The plan calls for 10 students to start in the program in August, and Trujillo is arranging to bring the students to Weber State for an intensive lab and clinical experience between their third and fourth years. Students will be able to have a hands-on experience with equipment they might not have in Ghana. They will also visit local clinics to better understand how respiratory therapists integrate into a health care team.  

Physicians from Ghana have come to the United States for three-month training internships, so they can learn how to teach the program. Schell said when her group goes to Ghana in May they will provide some specific training at the school for the instructors.  

Back Home in Kansas  

Back home in Emporia, Schell's mind is seldom at rest. A part of her is always thinking about all the need there is in Ghana.  

"I think it makes you appreciate everything so much more," Schell said of her experiences in Ghana. "Not just in your practice of health care, but the simple things of life - toilets, fresh water, being able to clean yourself daily, and good food that you can go and purchase."  

"It's amazing to me the suffering they go through, but they're open and happy," Schell added. "So when I come back, I try to be happy. It changes your whole outlook on life."

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018