Returning home to improve health care

Ruth Gakpo ’16 knows firsthand the importance of quality health care in curbing disease.

Growing up in Ghana—a small nation in sub-Saharan West Africa—she witnessed family members, friends and neighbors suffer from illnesses such as malaria and cholera. But it wasn’t until she moved to the United States, and experienced its health care system, that she realized that those diseases were not trivial, but in fact preventable.

“Armed with new awareness and knowledge, I was determined to learn as much as I could about health care and medicine with the hope I could one day treat and care for others so that they, too, might survive,” she said.

To fulfill that ambition, Gakpo chose to pursue a neuroscience major on a pre-med track, with a minor in women’s and gender studies, at Wheaton. As a rising senior, she landed a fellowship through Wheaton’s Davis International program, opening the door for her to participate in an eight-week internship at Blue-Med Africa—a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in her home country.

Gakpo already had honed leadership and community-building skills as a residential advisor and head residential advisor at Wheaton.

Dallas Flint, Wheaton’s area coordinator and student conduct coordinator in the Office of Residential Life, describes Gakpo as a friendly and highly responsible residential advisor who was promoted to head residential advisor after one semester because of her strong work ethic. “It truly was a blessing working with such a mature and responsible young woman.”

Gakpo took her leadership ability to villages in Ghana—where she participated in various medical outreach programs. Alongside other volunteers, she set up temporary sites where she would check patients’ vitals and assist with medical consultations. In addition, she observed physicians in Volta Regional Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department.

This experience offered more patient contact than at her previous internships, which included stints at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital’s Center for Women and Infants, both based in Worcester, Mass.

“I had more hands-on experiences during medical outreaches, and at the hospital, I was given the opportunity to feel fetal positions through the guidance of the doctors and midwives,” she said.

Gakpo visited schools, where she taught children basic hygiene and distributed toothpaste and toothbrushes. She assisted health care practitioners with educating families on family planning and reproductive health and helped arrange STD testing for women at risk. “It is important to empower women to be more conscious of their health and to be adamant about the use of protection.”

Her experience cemented her desire to pursue a medical career in women’s health. “I hope to one day return to Ghana and, through my experiences and knowledge, have a greater impact.”