At the end of March, the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health received a long-awaited message from Liberia – the 40-foot shipping container of medical books and other laboratory equipment donated by the Vanderbilt School of Medicine had survived it’s journey across the ocean and arrived at its final destination, the University of Liberia. The letter signaled the end of a nearly year-long donation effort at Vanderbilt and the beginning of new opportunities for current and future medical students in Liberia.
The University of Liberia is home to the country’s only medical school, tasked with the tall order of educating a new generation of physicians after years of civil war and the recent Ebola outbreak hollowed out the country’s health infrastructure, health workforce, and higher education. The University has a long history of fruitful partnership with Vanderbilt to strengthen medical education, which has led to joint research projects and professional development opportunities for students and faculty from both institutions. A chance conversation in spring of 2019, however, led administrators from both universities to recognize a new opportunity to advance medical training and research in Liberia.
During a visit to Nashville last April, Dr. Bernice Dahn, the University of Liberia’s Vice President of Health Sciences and former Minister of Health, asked Vanderbilt School of Medicine leadership if the school had any medical equipment or resources that could be donated for use by students in Liberia. As it turned out, VUSM’s recent transition to online lab simulations had left three rooms full of unused laboratory equipment – microscopes, textbooks, anatomy slides, test tubes, and more – in need of a new home. It was perfect timing. Vanderbilt leadership committed to donating the supplies and equipment, and the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health set to work on logistics. “The stars aligned in that fortuitous moment,” said Dr. Marie Martin, Associate Director of Education and Training at VIGH, “so that Vanderbilt could respond to a direct need of enhancing the teaching environment at AMD Medical School in Liberia. It will complement our other grant-funded work to strengthen medical education in partnership with visionary Liberian leaders like Dr. Dahn.”
Once word got out about the project, other organizations in the Nashville community stepped in with their own contributions. Additional medical supplies, textbooks, and other learning resources were donated by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Vanderbilt Eye Institute, individual Vanderbilt University School of Medicine faculty members, the Lipscomb University School of Pharmacy, and Vanderbilt student organization REMEDY (Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World). The US Agency for International Development committed to covering the cost of international shipping through its Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Liberia grants program.
The physical work of sorting, packing, and moving the materials was made possible by a dedicated team of more than 40 volunteers. Lorely Chavez, dual degree student in Public Health and Latin American Studies, said she volunteered to support her colleagues across the globe. “I feel very privileged to be able to contribute to a project bigger than myself and hope to continue to do so. I'm glad to know that I have contributed in a small way to help future physicians, nurses or health workers on their paths to making their community healthier.” By July, undergraduate interns had created a detailed inventory of equipment, including dozens of microscopes, hundreds of textbooks, and thousands of beakers. In October, graduate students and alumni packed up lab coats and boxed synthetic bones for anatomy lessons. In January, a 40-foot shipping container had been identified to carry the donation across the Atlantic. Collectively, staff, faculty, and interns from the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health, medical students from REMEDY, graduate students and alumni from the Masters of Public Health program, international visiting scholars from the Humphrey Fellowship program, undergraduate students from the Ingram Scholars program, and other members of the Vanderbilt community contributed 375 ‘sweat equity’ hours over a ten-month period. “The opportunity to assist friends, new and old, as they packed up lab equipment and educational materials for use in Liberia was a small, but tangible, way to be a part of VIGH's ongoing efforts to build capacity and support global partners," reflected volunteer and Vanderbilt alumnus Christopher Wahlfeld.
Surrounded by newly delivered boxes of books and equipment, Dr. Dahn echoed the sentiment from her office in Liberia. “Words are inadequate to express in a truer perspective our gratitude and felicitation for this donation,” she writes, adding that the she looks forward to University of Liberia’s continued mutual cooperation with Vanderbilt.
Photos from the Lab, including ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, are available on Flickr.