Patience Afulani

Patience Afulani

“It was disheartening to see children die of severe anemia and cerebral malaria; and women dying from pregnancy-related complications”

I am from the Bongo District of the Upper East Region of Ghana, one of the most deprived regions in the country. I had my primary and secondary (high school) education in this region; emerging as the best student from the region in the final Basic Education Certificate Exam, for which I received the Head of State award. (An award instituted by the president of Ghana to recognize the top students in the exam from each of the ten regions of the country). My interest in the health sciences started very early in my life. I joined the Ghana Red Cross Society at about age seven, supporting in the provision of first aid during community events. Driven by a desire to become a medical doctor, I decided to do science in secondary school at a time when there were very few female role models in the Sciences. I excelled in the final exam as a female science student among the few students from the school that qualified for admission to the University that year. I was admitted to the University of Ghana and subsequently to the University of Ghana Medical School. I successfully graduated in 2007, winning three major awards; and as the first female medical doctor from the four Frafra-speaking districts of the Upper East Region.

My interest in public health started in medical school when I engaged in community outreach activities. As president of the Federation of Ghana Catholic Health Trainees, and member of the University of Ghana Medical Students Association, I organized and participated in outreach programs to offer health education on different topics and provide basic services to various communities. These outreach programs increased my awareness of the need for preventive health services, especially in a developing country like Ghana. It was however during my work as a house officer at the Eastern regional hospital in Ghana that I strongly felt the need for further training in public health. On daily basis I consulted with patients with preventable conditions and saw some of them die of these conditions. It was disheartening to see children die of severe anemia and cerebral malaria; and women dying from pregnancy-related complications – conditions that could have been prevented or deaths that that could have been avoided if good basic healthcare was offered just a little earlier. My helplessness as a clinician in some of these situations and my desire to do something about the situation motivated me to pursue a higher degree in public health. My initial plan was to do an MPH and then continue my clinical training. But I decided, during my training in the MPH that a PhD a will equip me even better to do the things I had in mind. After two years in the PhD program, I am convinced I made the right decision.
My research interests are in Maternal, Child, and Reproductive Health with a global perspective. My goals are to engage in research, training of health professionals, and provision of services that will improve the health of women and children, particularly in Sub-Sahara Africa. Since starting my training in public health, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in Ghana and the United States on various aspects of maternal and child health aimed at improving maternal and child nutrition, preconception health, breastfeeding promotion, malaria control, and improving use of maternal health services. My current research is on the determinants of maternal health and health seeking behavior in Sub-Sahara Africa, with emphasis on the role of quality of maternal health services.

The initial decision to come to the US to pursue my studies seemed like a leap of faith, since I had no assurance of funding for the period of my studies. I am grateful for the fellowship support from various organizations that has enabled me to pursue my studies. I am especially grateful for the Bixby fellowship that has been my biggest source of funding since starting the doctoral program. Beyond funding, meeting the requirements for the Bixby fellowship has given me the opportunity to expand my understanding of the theories and methods of population research and exposed me to opportunities to advance my research. I am also grateful to my husband Joseph Asunka, who is also pursuing his PhD in political science in UCLA. He gently steered me in this direction even before I was confident this was the right step and has supported me more than I can ask for. We are blessed with two lovely children: Roselle (almost five years) and Joel (just turned one year).