Thursday, 22 July 2010

A Ghanaian hero: Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong

**I stumbled across the following text about Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong -a Ghanaian hero bringing relief to sickle cell sufferers in both the US and Ghana –and just had to share……

Title: Renaissance Man  /By: Erica Hurtt
Doctor. Hospital. Shot. Medicine. It is amazing how a few short words can make a child, and even an adult, squeamish and apprehensive. But for children with life-threatening illnesses, a hospital can feel like a second home. A shot or medicine can mean the difference between life or death, and a doctor can be a friend and a role model.

Cognizant of the influence he his on "little" patients, Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong tries to suppress his love of athletics and the large role they played in his life at one time. The director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia doesn't tell patients about his experiences on the Ghanaian Olympic track & field team or as the star of Yale University's soccer and track & field teams. He knows that most of these children cannot compete in the athletic arena of life, and he pushes them to find heroes to whom they can better relate. Heroes like himself. Heroes like the doctor in a small Ghanaian town who inspired Kwaku to study medicine.

"I hated him so much," said Kwaku as he recalled visiting his family doctor at the age of six, the age at which he realized he wanted to enter the medical profession. "I was so scared of him. But I knew he was doing something very important. I was so afraid to go, but whenever I would, he was such a nice person. It was a love-hate relationship."

At about the same age he discovered his passion for medicine, Kwaku started to play soccer. The youngest of seven children in the Frempong family, Kwaku and a group of youngsters in the area organized teams and competed against other kids in the town. They didn't have formal leagues or coaches. They just played on their own with the help of an adult patron who helped them purchase soccer balls.

Kwaku learned the true meaning of community and duty as one of the many grandsons of the town's chief. His grandfather had eight wives and fathered 44 children. Lessons of community and service were learned in this environment and they stayed with Kwaku for life.

When it came time for schooling, the youngster was sent to a boarding school in Ghana. It was there that his passion for athletics and his hunger for education grew. Kwaku got a taste of sports in the organized sense by competing in soccer, cricket and field hockey at his school, which fell under the British education system. At Prempeh High School, his love of sports grew to include track & field.

"Track is very popular for children in Ghana," explained Kwaku. "Even when I was eight or nine years old I always knew I was a little faster than my friends. So, I decided to try it."

Kwaku led Prempeh to three national track championships. He was the National Inter-Schools champion in the triple jump, broad jump and 120-yard hurdles. His athletic prowess earned him a spot on the Ghanaian national team, and he represented his homeland in the 1968 Olympics.

All of his athletic accomplishments weren't enough to satisfy the curious youngster, so Kwaku tackled challenges in the classroom, where success also awaited him. His dream of becoming a doctor was still vivid in his mind, and Kwaku focused on getting his education in the United States.

Word of mouth and advertisements in national newspapers led Kwaku to the African Scholarship Program of the American Universities, an organization that is no longer in existence. The program worked directly with schools in America and tried to find a good match for students in Africa and other participating countries. Kwaku supplied the program with his high school records and SAT scores, and was interviewed in Ghana by a representative from the scholarship program. Applicants did not apply to specific schools. The schools were given the student information and selected applicants based on that. Each applicant was sent the name of only one college that accepted them, and the schools did not compete for students.

"Your references were sent to schools in the U.S. and you heard from somebody," said Kwaku. "I heard from Yale."

The Ghanaian track star was prepared for the monumental step he was about to take. College and moving thousands of miles from home to a completely different culture did not scare off Kwaku. Two of his brothers had studied abroad, and he was used to living away from home and in the dormitory at his boarding school.

When asked about an adjustment period, Kwaku jokes that he still is adjusting. "I was used to being away from home and essentially making my own decisions," recalled the doctor. "I was more excited about it than in any way apprehensive."

Kwaku had plans to continue athletic competition at the collegiate level, and his country wanted to be sure he did. During his undergraduate years at Yale, Kwaku was a standout on the Bulldogs' soccer and track teams, and he earned three letters in each sport. He was considered a soccer player of professional caliber, but he made his biggest mark at Yale as a member of the track & field team. Kwaku set several school and meet records, and earned all-Ivy accolades in track and field and soccer. His athletic career culminated with his being named the recipient of the school's prestigious Mallory Award that recognizes the top male athlete at Yale. Kwaku was the first non-American born athlete to earn this honor.

As a student at Yale, Kwaku made two life-altering discoveries sickle cell disease and Janet Williams.

Kwaku met Janet Williams at a track meet at Ivy rival Cornell University. Through mutual friends, the two were introduced and stayed in contact. Although Janet, a 1970 graduate of Cornell, said she had no romantic interest in Kwaku upon their first meetings, the two soon began dating and then married nine days after Janet received her diploma.

"She was the greatest prize I ever won," said Kwaku of his wife and the mother of his two children. However, his other discovery did not come through athletics. It was in the classroom where Kwaku encountered sickle cell disease. It became a topic of discussion during an undergraduate lecture, a discussion that quickly grabbed the attention of the Ghanaian student.

"I first became aware of the disease in a class at Yale, even though I had grown up in Africa where it is so common," said Kwaku. "When I thought about the symptoms that were discussed, I realized that one of my cousins had died from it when he was 18. I became interested and found out that many people in my family had died from that."

His curiosity grew, and Kwaku then learned that he was a carrier of the disease. He entered Yale Medical School in the fall of 1970 and less than two years later, the birth of his son, Kwame, pushed him to learn even more about the disease.

Minutes after the birth of their first child, the couple learned that Kwame suffered from the disease that had taken so many members of Kwaku's family.

"I didn't have much more than a minute to live in the glory of this little baby," recalled Janet, a native of Harlem, N.Y., who was studying for a master's degree at Columbia at the time. "We were fortunate all along the way though. Many of the milestones in terms of the research that had been done to make the lives of people with sickle cell easier, have sort of coincided with our son's birth and growing up."

Kwame was born in New Haven, and he was treated by the specialist who led the fight for newborn screenings in Connecticut, a policy that some states have taken decades longer to adopt. Early diagnosis may have saved Kwame's life.

Sickle cell disease is characterized by a group of inherited red blood cell disorders. Typically, red blood cells are doughnut-shaped and they move through small blood tubes in the body to deliver oxygen. Sickle red blood cells become hard and sticky and shaped like sickles as a result of the change of the blood's substance hemoglobin. When the hard, pointy blood cells pass through the blood tube, they clog the tube and break apart, causing pain, discomfort, low blood count or anemia in suffers. Other complications from the disease, as a result of the sickle cells blocking the flow or early breakup, include: increased infections, stroke, leg ulcers, jaundice, lung blockage, delayed growth, bone damage and early gallstones. It is estimated that 70,000 Americans suffer from sickle cell, and cases are more prominent in men of African descent.

The birth of Kwame pushed Kwaku to commit himself to working on sickle cell disease. It was the focus of his thesis, and he was not surprised to learn that little work on the subject was being done in his native country.

Following his graduation from Yale Medical School, Kwaku took a pediatric residency at the Cornell Medical Center. From there, his fellowship work brought him to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where he focused on hematology. It was during these years that Janet and Kwaku celebrated the birth of their second child, a girl named Afia.

With the exception of a one-year stint as an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Kwaku and his family spent most of the early 1980s in Louisiana. Kwaku moved up the ranks and became the medical director of the Sickle Cell Center of Southern Louisiana, and then the section director of pediatric hematology and oncology while employed by the Tulane University Medical School.

Then in 1986, Kwaku returned to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Employed by the University of Pennsylvania, Kwaku continued the same type of work, breaking ground in the pediatric sickle cell disease field and making steps toward his current position as the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center's director. He assumed the position in 1990 and has made great strides in improving awareness of sickle cell disease and treatment of the illness.

Early in his career, Kwaku was involved in one of the National Institute of Healths (NIH) first sickle cell studies. Prior to this study, entitled the Comparative Study of Sickle Cell Disease, most information on the topic came from antidotal sources and a high percentage of it was inaccurate, according to the NIH's director of blood disease and resources division, and long time colleague and friend of Kwaku, Dr. Clarisce D. Reid. The study focused on following the clinical course of sickle cell patients from birth to adulthood.

"Dr. Frempong's group had the first newborn in that study and he sometimes keeps that baby's picture with him, 20 years later," said Reid. "He also was involved in the study that proved that penicillin helped children with sickle cell fight infections. That was a landmark in the mid-80s that prevented a lot of deaths and led to newborn screenings. I cannot think of any program or study we have had here that he has not had a direct interest in or impact on. He has been a part of every kind of front that I can imagine that involved pediatric patients and sickle cell disease."

However, his most recent endeavor takes him miles from his accomplishments in the U.S. It is a project that clearly reveals Kwaku's sense of duty and his incredible vision. About five years ago, the doctor took his vast pool of knowledge and resources to his home Ghana. Through one of his NIH grants, Kwaku and a team of medical specialists set up a clinic in Ghana that focused on sickle cell prevention and treatment. It started small with screenings for newborns and about 10 patients. As time has passed and word has spread, the clinic has grown to treat thousands of Ghanaians and includes more comprehensive treatment.

"Sickle cell disease is an enormous problem and everyone in Ghana is touched by it in some way," said Janet of her husband's work in Africa.

Many people are not even aware they have the disease, and some people are ashamed to come forth, according to Kwaku. He has supplied treatment and helped sufferers find the source of their pain. He is responsible for bringing technology to Ghana that further improves research and treatment methods and brings Ghanaian doctors to the U.S. for special training.

However, research, detection, prevention and treatment are just part of the equation. Kwaku realizes the importance of treating the whole person, and he set up counseling for sufferers and family members.

Kwaku also organized one of the, it not the, largest conferences on the issue of the deadly disease. More than 800 representatives from the medical and political arenas from all over the world met in Ghana and put sickle cell disease on the country's public health agenda. His work in the U.S. has not been slowed by his project in Africa, and he currently serves as the president of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America.

Through all of these amazing feats, Kwaku never lost sight of his commitments. His commitment to sickle cell disease. His commitment to his patients. His commitment to his country. His commitment to his family.

"I have more respect for Kwaku than anyone I have ever known," admits Janet. "He is the most solid, balanced individual I know; the closest thing to being a renaissance man of anyone I can think of."

Kwaku was a magnificent athlete, but that never consumed him. He kept academics and family life in perspective. He is an excellent doctor, but he still loves to laugh, talk about politics and he is a great musician, according to his wife (Kwaku's oldest brother taught him how to play the drums when he was a young boy.).

Janet jokes that she and her children live in Kwaku's shadow. This is not a result of Kwaku's actions. It is the way other people perceive this humble doctor that makes him seem like a fictitious character from an Alex Haley novel.

Kwaku and his wife were dedicated to raising their children with strong Ghanaian values and teaching them about their African heritage. The children take visits to their father's birthplace and are involved in activities that center on their African heritage. Pictures of Kwaku's ancestors bring life to the walls of the Frempong home.

Afia, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, is taking classes in Twi, the native tongue of Ghana. She also is involved in the school's African Rhythms, African Student Association and African-American Arts Alliance organizations. Now 26 years old, and a 1995 graduate of the University of Maryland, Kwame works in the crediting division of Cellular One.

According to Janet, Kwaku manages to find the enthusiasm and time to be a devoted husband, father, doctor and citizen of Ghana without a single complaint. "People call in the middle of the night, and he just gets out of bed, says Janet. "He doesn't complain about being overworked or tired.

When I see [Kwaku] going to bed at midnight and getting up at four in morning to go down the hall to the computer," Janet says, "I say 'I wish you could just rest for a second.' But then I go to Ghana, and I see what he has built there and all of the work he has done."

Janet talks about the educational sessions at the clinic in Ghana for family members' and educational professionals who work with children with sickle cell disease. She pictures the room packed with Ghanaians. Parents, nurses, physicians and children are sitting and standing. They fill the room. Women with babies on their backs are eager to learn more about the disease. Tears are shed. Before the clinic they had no diagnosis and no treatment. Now they have this. Pure beauty, Janet says.  

1 comment:

  1. May God richly bless you for the good work you are doing for humanity . Keep it up.