Instead of spending spring break swimming in the ocean, catching up on sleep or hanging out with friends, junior Hannah Shames traveled halfway around the world on a medical mission trip to Ghana.

Hannah’s dad, Dr. Brian Shames, is the Division Chief of General Surgery at UCONN Health. Dr. Shames had always been interested in getting involved in a mission trip. He reached out to Chief Resident, Dr. Lindsay Orr about her experience in 2006, when she accompanied a mission trip to Ghana as a photojournalist, documenting the mission’s work. Years later, Dr. Orr earned her PhD at Ross University of Medicine and has since wanted to return to Ghana, only this time to work in the operating room instead of behind the camera. After months of planning, Dr. Shames and Dr. Orr teamed to organize a trip to Ghana for March of 2018. When her dad mentioned the trip to Hannah, she immediately expressed an interest in accompanying them.

Prior to the trip, Hannah wanted to collect donations items from the KO community to give to the Ghanaian patients. Dr. Orr suggested shoes since many Ghanaians lack proper footwear. Hannah decided to collect new or gently used flip flops because they are perfect for warm weather and easy to transport. Hannah placed bins outside of Mrs. Perkins’ office and successfully collected 40 pairs of flip flops.

Upon their arrival in Ghana, Hannah and the medical team spent that majority of their time working at a hospital in Akra, the capital city, as well as a hospital in Kaspin, a rural village roughly ten hours outside of Akra. Over the course of 3 days, Dr. Shames preformed a total of 61 surgeries, predominantly hernia and cyst removals. Dr. Shames also mentored a doctor-in-training from northern Ghana. Although Hannah could not scrub in, she found other ways to help out in the operating room. “I would place the surgeons’ instruments onto the sterile field and delivered messages between the doctors inside and outside of the OR,” explained Hannah.

One of her favorite parts of the trip was meeting the patients and distributing the flip flops. “In America, people tend to complain about the smallest inconveniences,” Hannah said, “whereas in Ghana, the patients, who are both sick and living in extreme poverty, are able to find so much joy in something as simple as a new pair of shoes.” Hannah noticed that the medical team faced many challenges that don’t impact doctors in the United States. For example, “the hospital rooms in Ghana are not sterile so there’s a much greater risk of infection. The ORs are also much smaller and they aren’t equipped with necessary the supplies or technology,” she said.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Hannah remembers feeling both nervous and excited, “I didn’t know what to expect but I was really looking forward to exploring a foreign country,” she said. Looking back, Hannah remarks about how this trip expanded her world view and helped her to gain a greater appreciation for things she used to take for granted, such as clean drinking water. “I learned to be thankful for everything that I have. The Ghanaian people taught me that you can find something positive even in the worst of circumstances,” said Hannah.

In addition to coming away with valuable life lessons and fond memories, Hannah also returned to the US with a increased knowledge of medicine. “I have always been interested in pursuing a career in the medical field and this trip only increased my desire to do so,” she said. “Being able to observe in the OR was an incredible opportunity and I learned a lot from talking with the various doctors on the trip.” Hannah said she aspires to follow in her dad’s footsteps.

One day, Hannah hopes to return to Ghana, perhaps as a doctor herself, so that she can continue to help those in need. She also plans to join Team Tobati next year, as this experience has sparked a newfound interest in service projects. When asked about advice she would give to future students, Hannah said that, “pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone may be intimidating at first, but helping others is ultimately very rewarding and will benefit you in ways that you never expected.”