Students standing in front of an ambulance in Ghana.
Student Success | 4/1/2024

Clinical Rotation in Ghana a Homecoming for PA Student

By Jennifer Persons

Hilda Agyapong (front left with blue lanyard) with other students on clinical rotation at Cape Coast Teaching Hospital in Ghana.

Students standing in front of an ambulance in Ghana.
Hilda Agyapong (front left with blue lanyard) with other students on clinical rotation at Cape Coast Teaching Hospital in Ghana.

Hilda Agyapong has a new appreciation for medicine in the U.S. after completing a four-week clinical rotation in her home country.

Growing up, Hilda Agyapong wanted to be a cartoonist. She loved drawing, sketching, and creating characters. But one anatomy class during high school changed everything.

“I’m one of those people that medicine just called,” she said.

Agyapong lived in Ghana her entire adolescence, waiting to reunite with her mother, who had moved to the U.S. when she was young. In 2012, Agyapong was 17 years old when she moved to Rocky Hill, Connecticut, to join her mother.

At Rocky Hill High School, Agyapong took that life-changing anatomy class. More than a decade later, she returned to Ghana this spring for a clinical rotation as she works toward her Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS).

“I’m proud to be graduating and for the opportunity to be here for my family.”

Called to Medicine

When Agyapong, MPAS ’24, first moved to Connecticut, she had one more year of high school to complete. That’s when her vision for her career started to change.

“I fell in love with anatomy,” she remembered. “I had never taken any science classes before, but I was so keen on doing something with it.”

Agyapong graduated high school and attended community college for two years before transferring to Eastern Connecticut State University.

“I was still figuring out what I wanted to do in healthcare. I was so intrigued by all the opportunities, especially compared to what we had in Ghana.”

Agyapong worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) to support herself through college. There, she met a PA and started to learn about the job.

“I did a lot of research and was interested to learn more, so I applied to shadow a PA at Backus Hospital,” she said. The PA’s name was Joseph Kaplowe, and he later became Agyapong’s mentor. “The way he interacted with patients and the way he treated them, I only had to observe him once to decide that it was what I wanted to do.”

Tough Lessons

In 2021, Agyapong became a student at MCPHS. From her first day, she knew she was interested in returning to Ghana as part of her education.

“During my first year, I lost my grandmother and my uncle in the same month,” she said. “It was a very tough time because they had conditions that could have been treated. I was very eager to get an insight into Ghana’s healthcare system to better understand what I can do to help.”

This spring, Agyapong finally got that chance. She spent four weeks on clinical rotation at Cape Coast Teaching Hospital, a government hospital two hours from where she grew up. The experience opened her eyes to the many layers of challenges within Ghana’s healthcare system.

“It’s the little things like not having access to gloves, or hand sanitizer, or gel to defibrillate a patient, or a tube to intubate them, and patients die because of it,” she said. “We don’t have to think about those things in the U.S.”

The logistical challenges are only the beginning.

“People here wait to come to the hospital until their cases are severe,” she said. “Finances are also more important. Patients have to pay before they get procedures done, even small things like blood work, and they might not have the financial resources to do that.”

While the patient situations she has witnessed in Ghana have been difficult to witness, she has embraced the experience as a unique opportunity to learn.

“It’s a hands-on clinical experience, and I’ve been exposed to so many cases I wouldn’t have seen in the U.S.,” she said. “Since the providers here have very limited resources, they have to know so much. I applaud them. They really are doing their best.”

Though she wishes she could’ve stayed longer, Agyapong has returned to the U.S. to finish her studies. After graduation, she plans to pursue jobs in one of many areas of interest, including women’s health, surgery, internal medicine, and emergency medicine. Even though she doesn’t plan to work in Ghana long-term, she hopes to stay connected to the providers she has met during her rotation.

“I’ve talked with them about setting up a fund to help patients who can’t afford lab work or bringing them supplies,” she said. “I’ve made strong connections and hope to keep learning from the clinicians here.”

An Advocate for Mental Health

During her studies, Agyapong’s future wasn’t as certain as it is now. She said she was struggling with the rigors of the PA program and grief over losing loved ones.

“I was pushing through because of fear of failure. Learning wasn’t exciting anymore. But mental health is not talked about in my culture.”

When her mental state had reached an extreme low, Agyapong found the strength to voice her struggles to her roommates, the catalyst for her receiving professional help.

“Students should talk to their faculty sooner rather than later,” she said. “Give yourself grace, and don’t be afraid to take a step back if you feel like you’re losing yourself in the program.”

Two years later, graduation is on the horizon, and Agyapong is looking forward to what opportunities lie ahead.

“My therapist kept asking, what was my goal? My answer was always to become a PA. The best advice she gave me was to make happiness my goal, and the rest will follow, and it has.”