WILKES-BARRE — Next month KarenBeth Bohan will take a break from teaching at Wilkes University to work at a different school, some 7,200 miles from Wilkes-Barre and just a 15-minute drive from Miami Beach.
That would be Miami Beach, Kampala, Uganda, along the coast of Lake Victoria, perched on the African equator.
“I didn’t know they had a Miami Beach,” Bohan laughed when told that, at least according to Google Maps, her part-time home at Makerere University in Kampala is a scant 13 miles from a place dubbed Miami Beach in Lake Victoria’s Murchison bay — a straight shot down Port Bell Road from the school campus.
Bohan, an associate professor of pharmacy practice in Wilkes’ Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and Nursing, has won a Fulbright Grant to reshape the way pharmacy is taught at Makerere, and to help change the way it is practiced throughout the country.
“Their pharmacy program is basically a bachelor’s of science degree, and the primary curriculum is text book based,” Bohan said, “They learn about drugs and how to treat diseases, but they don’t have any experiential component where they go to the hospital pharmacy and learn the skills.”
The grant covers the six weeks of travel to Uganda, where Bohan is helping set up a clinical practice component to the existing pharmacy program at Makerere. An additional goal is to help those who may have already graduated to better integrate their work with other health care professionals.
“We work as a team here in the United States,” Bohan explained. “We walk rounds with doctors on the hospital floors visiting patients. In Uganda, they are still using a system where everyone is separate, everyone is doing their own thing.” Hospital pharmacists work in their own offices, not interacting much with nurses or doctors.
Breaking down the barriers of such a compartmentalized health care system does meet resistance, Bohan said, but many are appreciative. “Doctors have welcomed us on their rounds. It’s not long before they start asking us questions.”
How did Bohan end up making repeated trips to Africa?
“It was 2008. One of the faculty members in the anthropology department had been working” on a water project in Uganda, Bohan explained, and decided to recruit someone in the health field.
“They wanted to track rates of malaria and other water borne illnesses like cholera and dysentery,” Bohan said, to see if rates of the diseases fell as the water project — which included digging wells — advanced. She’s been making periodic trips across the Atlantic ever since.
Once in Uganda, the move away from the water project and into the pharmacy effort was relatively simple once she learned about the lack of clinical experience for Uganda students. Write a proposal, win a grant.
And yes, we’re talking that Uganda: Infamous for dictator Idi Amin, and site of the 1976 Israeli commando liberation of hijacked airplane passengers in Entebbe — an airport about 45 miles from Makerere.
“Uganda is a much more stable country now,” Bohan said. “The president has been in place 25 years.”
Of course, that starts to sound a bit dictatorial itself, she admits.
“When he came in 25 years ago he was all in favor of term limits, but that hasn’t happened.”
Not that the visits are risk-free. Bohan, who tries to include a few Wilkes’ students in her trips to Uganda, said they all use “safe travelers programs where you sign up online and say exactly where you are going.” If there are concerns in an area, they get an alert and know enough to stay away.
And the country responds quickly to threats. Bohan said she was in Uganda when terrorists attacked a mall in neighboring Nairobi, prompting a dramatic increase in police and soldier presence throughout Kampala, including guards where she was staying.
“Nowhere is completely safe,” she conceded. “You have to be alert and careful.”
But the trips are rewarding despite water concerns (“Even they don’t drink it,” she noted), sporadic electricity (or none at all outside the city), and a glut of Luganda language dialects that can leave even native doctors struggling to understand fellow Ugandans (English is one of the official languages so Bohan has little trouble doing her work).
Does it fulfill a childhood dream?
“Never in a million years would I have thought I would go to Africa.”