Category Archives: Medical aid

Dr. Elson Haas Travels to Ghana

Dr. Haas

Last summer, Dr. Elson Haas, author of dozens of books in the field of health and the founder and director of Preventive Medical Center of Marin, spent five weeks working with his 26-year old son Orion helping people in the villages of Ghana. Orion works with Global Brigades Africa, an NGO (non-government organization) supported by volunteers who provide medical brigades, clean water programs and micro-finance support to communities in Honduras and Ghana. “On average our medical brigade team saw 250 to 300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by a local school teacher and translator and two students,” says Haas. “It was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me to be able to bring my decades of work in integrative health care to people who are in such great need.”


I was part of Global Brigades Africa’s medical team as their “international doctor.” Along with two local Ghanaian physicians, and two sets of 20 medical students from England we provided the inaugural medical brigades, each of which took eight days, to two communities, Srafa Aboano and Ekumfi Ekotsi in the Central Region near Cape Coast, Ghana.


On average our medical brigade team saw 250-300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by  a local school teacher/translator and two students. Both clinics were held in schoolhouses which we made work for a triage room where temperatures and blood pressures were taken and health histories were recorded. My two fellow doctors and I met with patients in an adjoining room, and there was an  education tent nearby where people could receive public health support.  We also had a  pharmacy on-site so people could pick up antibiotics and other supplies and receive  information about how to take  any medicines that were prescribed. We treated many people for parasites and malaria, some high blood pressure and the very common “waist pain” which we call “low back pain” here.

After the four days of clinics, we had a “Public Health Day” that included education about water purification, which is my son’s focus with his work in both Honduras and Ghana, Malaria prevention, and physical therapy instruction about proper lifting plus stretching for low back pains. To me, this was a really important day with the idea that prevention (my career focus) and learning how to care for our body are the keys to really helping people, be it here or in Africa.


Being able to bring my decades of experience in integrative healthcare to people who are in such great need was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me. In fact, this experience was so life-changing that, in some ways, it felt like a new life here in Ghana.

The people of Ghana made this trip quite special. Although they have very little in many ways compared to Westerners, their spirits were strong and their joy of life was active. They love to dance and play music, which they on our opening/welcoming ceremony day and our final day of farewell and public health education day. This area of Ghana is also very beautiful- it was  quite green and lush with the tropics. Our summer is their winter and the “rainy” season, where there is an abundance of fresh pineapple, mango and bananas. They also grow a lot of corn (it’s kind of chewy) that they use for many of their local dishes. What was also special for me is that I was able to work with my son and my daughter, Ishara, and her boyfriend Max, who came over for the final three weeks on my journey.


The biggest challenge was to meet and treat people so quickly and the translation to communicate clearly (most Ghanaians speak Fante or Twi), yet it seemed to work quite smoothly overall.

Getting There

I arranged to join my son and Global Brigades for their first two medical brigades in Cape Coast area of Ghana in Western Africa. Although there are many long routes, I prefer the simplest when possible, so I chose to fly United from SF to DC and then nonstop into Accra, Ghana, on an overnight flight, arriving in mid afternoon on Father¹s Day to see my #1 son, Orion, and his cohorts for dinner and a good night sleep near the Atlantic Ocean.

Who Would You Recommend This Experience to?

Helping people in need in other parts of our wonderful world can be very rewarding, and especially to use my life-long skills as a physician for hundreds of people in Ghana and teaching the 40 plus medical students from England who joined the brigades is an experience that I will never forget and one which I will repeat in upcoming years. It¹s a fun, inspiring and gratifying way to see other parts of the world and to meet people from other cultures and get to more them much more than being a simple tourist.


A Year of Adventure for the Wright-Williams Family

In 2006, the Wright-Williams family sold their house and took off for an adventure. “I loved our home and was very attached to it, but once it sold, it gave us so much freedom,” remembers Diana. They had ten weeks to plan the trip, pack up, pull kids out of school, get vaccinated and move things into storage. With two duffel bags in tow, they left with their two children (ages 8 and 4) and started in China and traveled though Tibet, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and finally rested for three months in New Zealand before coming home one year later. During that time, they taught English to students in Vietnam, raised $20,000 for heart surgery for children in Vietnam, volunteered with monks in Laos, and bought school supplies and clothing to villages, schools and orphanages in Laos. “Volunteering turned out to be easier in concept than in reality in many cases,” says Diana, “but in the end it was transformative for each of us as individuals, as well as for our family and hopefully, we left the places we visited better off than when we arrived. And perhaps best of all, the children quickly learned about simplicity and I hope they learned that each of us can do something, even if it is just a little thing, that can help make someone else’s day a bit better.”


Our journey began in China, where we went to visit my younger daughter’s foster parents. They raised her for a year before we met her and became an adoptive family in 2003, when she was 15 months old.  From there, we traveled to Tibet and Nepal. In Tibet, it was virtually impossible to volunteer, at least in a public way. There is so much need, but with children, it would have been too difficult and risky to become involved with an underground effort. We visited friends in Nepal, but chose not to stay due to the civil unrest. In Vietnam, we found what we were looking for and stayed for three months helping with “Heartbeat Vietnam”


Of the year that we were abroad, we spent three months with  “Heartbeat Vietnam” in Saigon, traveling to the Mekong Delta and meeting the children who had severe heart defects and didn’t have access to medical care, nor the funds to pay for a surgery. The surgery to repair a heart defect in Saigon averages about $2,000 USD. If the average subsistence farmer is earning a $1/day, then you can see how impossible that would be. Children would just turn blue and eventually die without help. We were able to raise $20,000 from friends and family to get 10 children to the hospital, and continue to support the program with an annual sale of Asian textiles and scarves. We also taught English in two countries – to children Hanoi and to monks in Laos. Through the scarf sales, we have also been able to send support to an orphanage in Laos.


Being with my children as they discovered their own compassion and ability to make a difference in a life of another child was incredible. It can get cold in Laos, and many children don’t go to school in the winter because they don’t have warm clothes or shoes to walk the long way to get there. So, we collected clothes, and with a local teacher who could tell us who the neediest children were, we were able to clothe a few dozen kids in a small village in Northern Laos.  One girl, who walked the farthest to school, had feet that were bigger than the shoes we had brought with us. My daughter looked at her for a moment, then bent down, took her sneakers off her feet and gave them to the girl. I like to think that those shoes are still somewhere in that village keeping a child’s feet warm.


I would say there were three major challenges.

1.  The health of my family was an everyday challenge. NuNu was four and Isobel was eight when we began our trip.  I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for the altitude sickness in Tibet. For the first few days Bob was violently ill, NuNu was throwing up, Isobel couldn’t walk, as her legs were too weak from lack of oxygen, and I had a massive headache. Malaria was also a consideration, and while I came prepared with Malarone, we never did end up using it. As soon as we landed in a new country I would ask the ex-pats about the malaria situation – after weighing the risk vs. the toxicity of the medication, we just took the usual precautions for preventing mosquito bites.

2. Finding places to volunteer. Since we didn’t work though an organized volunteer program, it was critical to find people whom we could get to know and trust. We learned that money can get into the wrong hands and well-intentioned travelers and tourists can think they are doing a good thing, when in fact they can inadvertently create a lot of damage. Ex-pats were the best source of good information about who to trust and who to stay away from. Again, there were places we visited where the need was possibly the greatest, but our hands were tied, as in Myanmar.

3. No doubt, we became closer as a family. However, being together 24/7 for weeks at a time will either bring you much closer to your spouse or land you in divorce court. I happy to report that Bob and I are still married and are better off for having spent that year together.

Getting There

We traveled by train, plane, automobile, tuk tuk, motorbike, boat, canoe, bicycle and by foot- and that was half the fun. Because it wasn’t planned out ahead of time, we had the luxury of creating the travel plans as we went. With the exception of getting stuck enroute in the old, bug infested airport in Bangkok for 48 hours, winging it worked pretty well.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Any family with children who wants to have an adventure.  Giving ourselves a year allowed a tremendous amount of freedom, but certainly, a version of this trip could be done in less time.