“My only way to give back”

Dr. Emmanuella "Ella" Amoako poses with a young patient during an Operation Smile medical mission to Ho, Ghana in 2015. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

When Dr. Emmanuella “Ella” Amoako earned her medical degree in Ukraine, she hadn’t sought to become a paediatrician.

Rather, it was after she returned home to Ghana that paediatrics found her.

“It was during my housemanship that I came to love paediatrics,” Ella said. “Ghana has a young population with very few doctors – much less paediatricians. This was my only way to give back to my home country – taking care of our future leaders as we put it.”

At just 28 years old and still in her residency, Ella has established herself as a dynamic young leader on the front line of Ghanaian paediatrics. In part with the Regan Resident Leadership Program supported by the Harbourton Foundation, she has already volunteered on six Operation Smile medical missions in Ghana.

Paediatrician Dr. Emmanuella “Ella” Amoako of Ghana uses play so she may listen to a young patient’s heartbeat and breath and ask questions about his medical history as part of the comprehensive medical evaluation process.

Like many low- and middle-income countries, Ghana suffers from a critical lack of health care infrastructure and the capacity to provide basic surgical services to many of its citizens. This means people are often forced to live with surgically-correctable conditions like cleft lip and cleft palate.

It’s estimated that a child with a cleft is born every three minutes, or about one in 500 to 750 births. Depending on the type and severity, a cleft can create serious health issues if not corrected. Babies can have difficulty with feeding, which often leads to malnutrition and, in some cases, starvation. People living with cleft can also suffer from debilitating bullying and social isolation.

Ella’s fire to give back was lit when an Operation Smile medical mission came to her hospital in Cape Coast, Ghana, during her paediatric housemanship in April 2015. That’s when she met a Ghanaian Operation Smile medical volunteer who invited Ella to observe the mission – the same mission that forever changed the trajectory of Operation Smile Ghana.

Witnessing the life-changing transformations changed her life as well.

While Ghana offers some of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes, it also suffers from a critical lack of adequate infrastructure, health care services and economic opportunities, resulting in some of the world’s most significant barriers to safe surgical care for its citizens. Our vision of improving patients’ health and dignity through safe surgery is backed by the idea that no one deserves to live with the burden of a cleft condition. Photo: Margherita Mirabella

“I saw children who went into the theatre and came back looking amazing in less than an hour,” Ella recalled. “I watched parents cry tears of joy with each child that came out of the theatre.

“I never looked back. Indeed, this was the best way to give back – being able to give hope and a smile to families who were once broken from the social stigma of cleft.”

Ella’s volunteer work with Operation Smile isn’t the only way she gives back.

She’s also the treasurer of the Greater Accra branch of the Paediatric Society of Ghana, as well as the founder and president of her own charity, Boafo Philanthropy, which raises money to help Ghanaian children pay their hospital bills. Boafo means “helper” in Twi, the most widely-spoken language in Ghana.

Ella provides treatment for a young patient during an Operation Smile medical mission to Ho, Ghana in 2015. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

“I started Boafo during my housemanship. I noticed that there were children, especially, whose parents couldn’t fund their stay in the hospital or to buy the medications that they needed – some people abandoned their children or abandoned their treatment because they couldn’t pay for it” Ella said. “So I decided to start something small, convincing a few people to donate or pledge every month, then use that money to help.”

So far, Boafo has come to the aid of more than 70 children. Ella said that networking within the Paediatric Society has helped sustain and grow her efforts.

She is also one of the leaders of Operation Smile Ghana’s nutrition programme, which helps malnourished children gain enough weight to safely undergo anaesthesia to receive cleft surgery.

“What drives me is that you can make a difference,” Ella said. “So when I get up in the morning, I tell myself, ‘I can do this. I can make a difference.’”

Ella stops for a photo with a young patient and mother during an Operation Smile medical mission to Koforidua, Ghana, in 2017. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.