Cincinnati Children's Blog

Ghana 2012: Fulfilling, humbling experience

(Reported by Della Heiman and Cliff Goldkind, volunteer members of the Ghana 2012 mission, organized by the Colorectal Center at Cincinnati Children’s)

As the team gathered at the Accra Airport Holiday Inn for one final dinner, one final speech by Dr. Levitt, and one final group photo, the air was filled with pride, camaraderie, and fulfillment. Team members recounted stories from the week, shared their impressions, and made plans to rendezvous in various international locations.

Meaningful collaboration

As a first-time participant in a Colorectal Center team mission, OR Nurse Sarah-Ross Tolin expected that the experience would be intense. “We’ll be thrown into a situation without normal supplies, in an unfamiliar environment,” she said. On her final night in Accra, Sarah-Ross reflected: “The trip met all of my expectations and exceeded them. The team was amazing, and I was truly honored to be part of such a meaningful collaboration at Korle Bu.”

In addition to her contributions in the OR, Sarah-Ross helped collect important supplies during the months leading up to the mission. This initiative was spearheaded by OR Nurse Sarah Wilhelm, who joined the team for her second mission. The two assessed the needs of Korle Bu’s surgical ward and gathered instruments, medications and surgical apparel to carry across the ocean in duffel bags.

Hailing from Israel, RN Andrea Kesar is a veteran of three mission trips. She expressed special pride in watching her Ghanaian colleagues acquire new expertise and skills. “I keep coming back because Marc Levitt gives me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of helping people.”

Tremendous impact

Korle Bu’s pediatric surgeon Victor Etwire, who participated in several operations this week, said the team’s work has had tremendous impact on the Ghanaian medical staff.

Laughing, Dr. Etwire pushed down on his own shoulders and joked, “George Rodríguez and Marc Levitt have put so much pressure on me. 3000 cubits…6000 cubits…9000 cubits!”

On a more serious note he continued, “We’ve had mothers wait for six months or more to have their children’s problems solved, and that adds excitement. In terms of skill transfer, that’s been quite good, I think the level of cooperation has been tremendous.”

Dr. Etwire described several especially complex procedures that he performed for the first time under the guidance of the visiting surgeons. Now, he’s ready to continue such procedures on his own.

“I assisted on a Malone procedure (an advanced treatment to help manage fecal incontinence) and then I performed one,” Dr. Etwire said. “I feel very cool about that. These new skills will help us do better work.”

For Georgina Yaboah, Korle Bu’s OR nursing director, this week’s visit also was a reunion. She spent an entire month earlier this year training at Cincinnati Children’s, which she called a transforming experience.

“While I was in Cincinnati, I emailed Professor Hesse and said that when I come back, there were going to be big changes at the hospital,” Yaboah said.

Compared to the team’s 2010 visit, more Korle Bu nurses worked directly with the team this year and many other nursing students came to watch the operations and learn, she said.

Praise for ‘Daddy’ Nelson

With departure approaching, Dr. Levitt called the team into its final huddle.  Team members listened closely as Nelson Lees, the group’s king of logistics, gave instructions for getting to and through the airport.

Throughout the trip, Lees managed an enormous list of tasks with optimism, friendliness and warmth: from organizing 34 unique flight itineraries, to interfacing with the American Embassy and Ghana TV, to rescuing a lost shipping container of medical supplies. He even entered the kitchen of Eddie’s Pizza Restaurant to hasten the culinary process.

The team would have been lost without Lees. In fact, when a bus he was not riding  momentarily broke down one night, OR Nurse Alicia Brown joked, “We can’t go anywhere without ‘Daddy’ Nelson!”

Heartfelt thanks

After Lees conducted his last roll call, Dr. Levitt stepped up to congratulate the team. He noted a certain symmetry to the 34-member crew and the 34 operations completed during the trip. Then he shared a note given to him by Edem Rhoda, a dental student from the University of Ghana:

Hi Everybody!

This is a note to say a big thank you to the entire colorectal team. I am a dental student but I have learned a lot from your team. Just to mention a few:

1. Your work is really interesting.
2. I love the spirit of the team work amongst you.
3. Your high level of professionalism is exceptional.
4. Your zeal and attitude toward work is remarkable.
5. The friendly atmosphere in which you work is filled with so much love.

I thank you all for accommodating me. I thank you on behalf of all Ghanaians for the great service you rendered to our nation. We are very very grateful. God bless you all richly.

After exchanging hugs, goodbyes, and a few tears, the team members dispersed and began their long journeys home to four different continents.

While such an intense experience is hard to encapsulate, RN Julie Guttman eloquently summed up the 2012 mission:

“Dr. Levitt’s vision is such an inspiration and we are all so fortunate to be a part of something so powerful. I can honestly say that I have never been so honored or proud to be a part of such a hardworking and dedicated team.”

When speaking about team dynamics, Dr. Levitt often urges people to “fill in the holes.” No one in the group embodied this concept more than Guttman, a veteran of five team missions.

Julie worked in the OR, raised funds, assisted George Rodríguez with in-hospital logistics, helped with pre-operation procedures, organized supplies and comforted patients and their families.

“Each trip has been unique — the dynamic of the team, the relationship between the local providers and visiting providers, and overall ebb and flow,” Guttman said. “To witness and be a part of such an amazing transformation has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life. Each surgery changes the life of a child and his or her family, and the opportunity to be a part of that is truly humbling.”

Thank you sponsors and supporters!

The Colorectal Center at Cincinnati Children’s thanks these individuals and organizations for their help making the 2012 Ghana mission possible:

Mission supporters: MedWish, Ethicon, Standard Textile, Delta Airlines and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Pediatric Surgery Division.

Hostel project supporters: the Ronald McDonald House of Greater Cincinnati, Five Guys Restaurant in Miami, Lehigh Valley Jewish Community, Dr. Inbal Samuk, Eva Levitt, Tyler Miller, Aliza Lerner, Julie Guttman, and other anonymous donors.

How you can help: Those interested in supporting future Colorectal Center missions may contact Gretchen Niebling, Colorectal Center Program Coordinator, by email to or call 513-636-3240.



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