Alum Provides Medical Aid for Cameroon

Ashley O’Connell 2010 spent six weeks in Cameroon last summer (2011) working in remote sites to provide health care to marginalized families who rarely, if ever, see a doctor. On April 6 she and other medical students will host a creative and art-filled evening to support the work of medical workers in Cameroon.

Ashley O'Connell in Cameroon

Ashley O'Connell in Cameroon

O’Connell, now a medical student at Drexel University, was a double major in French and Biology at Ursinus. A trip to Senegal that she took as an Ursinus student in 2009 sparked an interest in working in medicine in Africa or other underserved areas. “The humanities serve as a context for her work as well as providing the basis for what well may be a lifetime commitment,” says Frances Novack, Professor of French.

At Drexel, O’Connell’s French language background helped her to be selected to participate in a summer medical program in Cameroon run by Dr. Georges Bwelle, a surgeon at the Central Hospital in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Bwelle travels with his team into the most rural outreaches of Cameroon to treat the sick. The medical students who accompanied Bwelle last summer were from all over the world. They loaded into a Land Rover to travel rugged terrain, sometimes showing up in a village in the middle of the pitch-black night.

“It was incredible,” says O’Connell. “Each village had its own character and they would all come out to greet us no matter what time of night. It was like you were entering a new country each time.” Often when the team arrived, the village residents would greet them with traditional dances and music, she says.

The days were long and difficult because the number of patients seemed endless. After treating patients, some who had traveled many miles on foot to be seen by a doctor, the medical students would use headlamps to find their way at night. They stayed in tents and sleeping bags and skipped showers for days at time. Despite the rigorous schedule, they did find some time to sightsee and even hike Mount Cameroon. Because of the work they were doing with Dr. Bwelle, O’Connell and one other student were interviewed as guests on national Cameroon radio.

The conditions of the makeshift clinics were dire, says O’Connell, but she was able to observe relatively simple surgeries like hernia repairs that offered life-changing possibilities for the patients. Some of the people she met had lived with painful tumors that kept them from working or from being accepted by the community. A few hours of medical care changed the course and outlook for these patients, says O’Connell.

“If I could learn a skill like surgery,” she says. “I could change the course of their lives.”

With two more years of medical school, she is still deciding what specialty to pursue. If she chooses to become a surgeon it would mean five years of surgical residency.

O’Connell says she was inspired by the work and travels of biology professors Ellen Dawley and Robert Dawley. “They’ve dared to do so many things and showed me that if I go out on a limb, I could help other people,” she says. “They opened a window.”

The Cameroon benefit was Friday, April 6 at the Ukranian League of Philadelphia. All proceeds will go towards buying medications and supplies for the medical work in Cameroon. Those interested are more than welcome to visit to learn how to support this important effort.