Health Professions alumna bringing respiratory care education to West Africa
By Greg Peters, Communications Coordinator | School of Health Professions
March 9, 2015
Mention the country of Ghana to Karen Schell, DHSc, BSRC, and her eyes begin to twinkle and a spark of enthusiasm overtakes her voice. 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. But she hasn't stopped at merely going on mission trips; Schell 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."
Landing in Emporia
Schell and her husband, Jim, were busy working and raising two kids in their hometown of Marysville, Kan., when they decided to sell everything and go back to college. Karen, who had been an on-the-job-trained respiratory care worker in Marysville, took classes at Kansas State and worked at the hospital in nearby Junction City, while Jim was fast-tracked to complete his mechanical engineering degree in three years in Manhattan.
After Jim's graduation, they moved to Texas where he had been promised a job, but that plan soon fell apart and the family moved back to Kansas and Karen completed her associate's degree in respiratory at Washburn University. Jim then landed a job in Emporia and moved the family there.
Knowing Karen had a newly minted respiratory degree, the hospital in Emporia began recruiting her. But after taking the job, Karen soon realized she needed a bachelor's degree to be successful, so she began studying in an "after hours" program at night at The University of Kansas.
Ghana by chance
Schell says finding her way to Ghana was as much by happenstance as by design. 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 (which Karen is now 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 RT
On Schell's second trip to Ghana in 2012, she and Trujillo met Dr. Audrey Forson, 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.
"In our visits to the country, we saw there is so much work to be done in the health care field and that respiratory care could play a vital role."
Forson was willing to set up a bachelor's degree program at the University of Ghana. During a second trip there in 2012, Trujillo and Schell met with the dean of the school, the CEO of its associated hospital and the Ministry of Health to make plans.
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. She has a standing notice within the state respiratory community that if anyone has spare ventilators or other supplies they would like to donate, she is happy to accept them and arrange transport to Ghana.
"Many of the supplies Karen single-handedly collected will provide educational opportunities at the University of Ghana and will in turn provide their staff the education they need to save lives," Trujillo said.
Schell got her initial taste of the massive need on her first trip to Ghana when she was quickly called into service to work in a delivery room where within 45 minutes they had birthed and cleaned six babies. Some of the babies were placed on tables without any way to keep track of which mother they belonged to. The lack of sterile conditions, necessary medical supplies and the potential for cross-contamination shocked Schell and her colleagues.
Schell said an expectant mother in Ghana is required to bring everything her child will need to the delivery room, from cloths to clean the baby to receiving blankets for them to be wrapped in after being born. Because often times, the mothers arrive with nothing, Schell and others are putting together birthing packets complete with wash cloths, diapers and receiving blankets to help the families.
Every year, Charity Beyond Borders goes to Agbogbloshie, an environmental-waste dump in Ghana where 30,000 people subsist by scavenging for metals and other recyclables. It's an area where there are tremendous amounts of disease and injury, so the group provides basic health education and whatever treatment they can. Schell has also been putting together basic medical aid kits that she will take with her on the next trip to Agbogbloshie.
"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 and not worry about trying to find food."
"But they're so happy," she added. "It's amazing to me the suffering they go through, but they're open and happy. So when I come back, I try to be happy. There is so much to be thankful and happy for. I guess it changes your whole outlook on life."