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Penn State St. Joseph Pediatrician Returns from Second Trip to Ghana

Dr. Haley Spagnola, a Penn State Health St. Joseph pediatric hospitalist, returned from her second trip to Ghana in March with an increased appreciation for its people and the hardships they face on a daily basis.

Malnutrition is common in the West Africa nation, with many children suffering from its effects. “There definitely are food scarcity issues, and because of that the children experience a variety of problems,” Spagnola said.

Included in those problems are developmental delay; organ damage; stunted growth; and rickets, scurvy and blindness – results of vitamin deficiencies.

In spite of their problems, the people of Ghana are warm and welcoming, and deeply appreciative of the efforts of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey’s Global Health program, which sponsored the trip.

“They’re really thankful that we give up our time to come and help them,” Spagnola said. “They love sharing their culture and their food. They are a very lovely people.”

Children, many of whom had never seen a white person before, were particularly fascinated by those visiting. “They touch you a lot,” recalled Spagnola, who is petite and very blonde. “They liked to touch my hair, because it was so different than theirs.” Spagnola, 31, also traveled to Ghana last year while in residency at Hershey Medical Center. This year, she accompanied Hershey residents as a chaperone.

Hershey’s Global Health program partners with Mountcrest University College and the Eastern Regional Hospital in Ghana, and is helping the College to establish a medical school in the village of Larteh. The medical school, set to open in the fall, is the first in rural Ghana. Penn State students and doctors also worked in Eastern Regional Hospital during their trip, treating both inpatients and outpatients.

“In the morning we would round in the inpatient ward, and then we’d go to the outpatient clinic in the afternoon,” Spagnola said. They also interacted with medical staff, working to bring evidenced-based practices to the hospital.

“One of the big things we’re looking at is a large longitudinal project to help improve practices,” Spagnola said.

Ghana has a national health system, but coverage is limited. While the national system covers basic services, patients may have to pay for prescriptions or tests. If financial resources are not available, services may be denied. Some Ghanaians have private insurance, but many rely on the national system.

Making the most of available resources is extremely important, Spagnola explained, and those resources often are very limited. Experiencing those limited resources while working at Eastern Regional Hospital deepened Spagnola’s appreciation of the availability of supplies and services in the United States.

“It makes you appreciate more the resources that we have, and inspires you to try to use those resources more wisely,” she said. “Despite some of the problems we have with our healthcare, we still are very fortunate for what we have.”

Spagnola hopes to return to Ghana next year, perhaps with some of St. Joseph’s family physicians.

“The program is growing quickly, and there are plans for more and more trips,” she said.

Staff members from Eastern Regional Hospital also have visited Hershey Medical Center. The partnership, Spagnola said, is beneficial to everyone.

“Learning about a different healthcare system is really important, and experiencing it hands on is a great opportunity,” she said. “As this partnership continues to grow, more and more residents and doctors will be able to benefit from that.”

Haley C. Spagnola, DO is a Pediatric Hospitalist at Penn State Health St. Joseph, delivering high-quality medical care for infants, children, and adolescents during their in-patient hospital stay.


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