Utah Respiratory Therapist Receives Koga Medal for Work in Ghana

Lisa Trujillo

The physicians and nurses pictured here were trained to use the Fanem CPAP machine by Trujillo and her colleagues.

When a Ghanaian student named Albert Ncancer came to the U.S. to study respiratory care at Weber State University in Ogden, UT, some ten years ago, Lisa Trujillo, DHSc, RRT, didn’t know any more about the country than the average American.

But when Ncancer invited her to travel to Ghana to teach respiratory care to health professionals there, she knew she was going to find out. “He said, ‘we’ — meaning Ghana — ‘need what you can provide,’” says the director of clinical education and associate professor. It was a request she couldn’t turn down, and she’s been traveling to the country on a regular basis ever since.

Lisa Trujillo

This patient was failing fast before Trujillo came in and set him up on a CPAP machine she and her colleagues had donated to the hospital.

Dr. Trujillo received the 2016 Koga Medal, awarded annually by the International Council for Respiratory Care, at the AARC Congress in San Antonio for the work she has done in the country, and in the following interview she describes her experiences and explains why she believes they are making a real difference in the care and treatment of Ghanaians with respiratory conditions.

Your first trip to Ghana took place in 2006. What did you learn about the health care problems facing the country during that trip and what motivated you to want to help?

I learned that health care is still in a developmental stage and that the health care providers currently working in the system do the absolute best they can with the resources and education they have. I felt that as an RT and as an educator I had skills and resources that I could offer. I also knew I had a great opportunity to learn as well.

You’ve since been to Ghana some 20 times. What keeps you coming back?

I love the people of Ghana and I feel together we have the opportunity to make a big impact on the delivery of health care — and respiratory therapy specifically — throughout the country. Additionally, I love serving and I love sharing the opportunity to serve with others. It is a pleasure to lead highly motivated and skilled teams to Ghana and watch them share their talents as they learn from their experiences.

Lisa Trujillo

Students and faculty from the Ghanaian program are proud to be bringing trained RTs to their nation.

How do you believe you and your colleagues have been able to improve health care services for people in the country?

I feel we have been able to provide general annual health care check-ups for people in the communities we visit annually. Often, people will not seek preventative care, nor will they pay for an annual screening. Through our services, we have been able to identify illness and detect issues early on, which allows the patient to seek care earlier and potentially reduce the severity of the disease.

Along the way you’ve also gotten heavily involved in helping Ghana set up an educational program to train RTs. Why did you think this program was needed?

According to the CDC, respiratory disease is the leading cause of mortality, even greater than malaria. Additionally, preterm birth complications and birth asphyxia rank in the top ten causes of mortality, which include potential areas where skilled respiratory therapists can make an impact. Through the development of the respiratory therapy program at the University of Ghana, awareness is being brought to respiratory diseases and how to better diagnose and care for patients with respiratory illnesses.

What did it take to get the program off the ground?

It was necessary to involve several stakeholders, including the Ministry of Health, Ghana Health Services, the University of Ghana, and Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, among others. Without all involved, the development of such a program would not be possible.

Lisa Trujillo

Thanks to Trujillo and her colleagues, babies like this one stand a better chance at life.

What’s the status of the program today and when do you expect the first class to graduate?

Currently, the first cohort of eight students has completed the first semester in the program. They will resume class in January. The program is a 1+3, meaning they take one year of prerequisites then apply to the three year program. These students have completed the first semester of year two.

How do you believe these newly minted RTs will help improve respiratory care in the nation?

Since physicians and nurses are spread very thin, these new graduates will fill a significant void that exists in providing respiratory-specific care to patients, as well as be a very needed additional component to the health care team. Some therapies are currently being provided, such as oxygen therapy and small volume nebulizers. However, more complex and specialized skills simply do not exist.

For example, during my last trip I was called to evaluate and treat a patient suffering from community acquired pneumonia. He was on a non-rebreather when I entered and had been for three days. His saturations were in the 70’s and his PaO2 was in the high 40’s-low 50’s.

There was a CPAP machine at the bedside — which I had shipped to Ghana in a container the year before — but no one in the 2000 bed hospital knew how to set it up. The patient could not afford to be transferred to the ICU. I was able to quickly set up the CPAP, titrate the pressure and wean the FiO2 from 100% to 60% while the patient’s saturations stabilized at 94%.

Lisa Trujillo

This infant was the first to receive bubble CPAP in the NICU at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital.

The new graduates of this program will have the skills to do exactly what I did for this patient. Cases like this exist all over the hospital. From adult patients to the tiniest preterm infants, the future RT grads from this program will make an impact and save lives!

You received the Koga Medal for your long-time work in Ghana. What did it mean to you to be recognized by the international respiratory community?

I am humbled by this prestigious award and I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful for my education, my mentors, my clinical experience, and my colleagues who have supported me and have personally participated in the work in Ghana.

I am also grateful for the many individuals who share my vision of providing improved health care and respiratory therapy education for our friends in Ghana. And I am grateful for a family that provides unwavering support and shares much of the burden of the workload. Without all of these individuals, none of what we have accomplished would be possible.

Lisa Trujillo has received a wealth of press coverage for her work in Ghana over the past decade, including this article and video that ran just last month on the CBS-TV website out of Salt Lake City.