Fargo, North Dakota – Dr. Bertha Serwa Ayi is a specialist in infectious diseases at Essentia Health and is frequently consulted to address complex medical issues.
Along with the more common conditions including COVID-19, pneumonia, diabetes-related bone infections, HIV, and hepatitis C, there are also some strange cases that no one can explain.
“They’ll call us in, and if we get the clues right, we might be able to fix it,” Ayi said.
Like the time she identified widespread gout in a patient who had seen many doctors and had swollen joints and failing kidneys.
Or the time she visited a patient from Guatemala in Iowa who had a fever, swollen lymph nodes, an abdominal ache, and a weird rash.
Leprosy, an infectious illness that is most prevalent in tropical Africa and Asia and can result in deformity and incapacity, was immediately apparent to Ayi upon first glance.
If she’s not working, she’s tackling an even more complicated issue: the lack of doctors and restricted access to healthcare in Ghana, a nation in West Africa, where she was born.
“The work that I do here gives me the flexibility to take care of my family and at the same time make a difference back home,” Ayi said.
In a nation of almost 30 million people, there were only two medical institutions when she earned an honors degree from the University of Ghana Medical School in 1996.
She claimed that even though there are now seven medical schools, the number of doctors they graduate is still much below what is required.
In Ghana, there are roughly 3,000 patients for every doctor.
The United States has a ratio of approximately 300 patients per doctor, she added, compared to the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1,300 or fewer.
Ayi has firsthand knowledge of such doctor scarcity in her early years.
She contracted malaria several times while a student teacher in Ghana and had to travel seven miles to and from the nearest hospital to get treated.
Her professional choice was influenced by the joint and back pain, and fevers from the infection brought on by a parasite in mosquitoes.
“It’s what directed me into the field of infectious diseases to start with,” Ayi said.
She earned her medical degree in Ghana and then finished her internal medicine residency at Good Samaritan Hospital Inc., a Baltimore, Maryland hospital connected to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
A fellowship in infectious diseases training program was then completed at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
She has been a specialist in infectious diseases for 18 years and, at 51, wants to impart more of the knowledge she has acquired in the United States to those in her own country.
Ayi is the head of the Ghana Physicians and Surgeons Foundation of North America, where she has worked to simplify credentialing so that more medical professionals can operate in Ghana.
She made talks and shot films to battle false information that was spreading in the Ghanian community concerning the COVID-19 vaccine and to reassure people.
She sent out medical aid on behalf of the Ghana Physicians and Surgeons Foundation to neglected regions. In collaboration with Books for Africa, she also brought tablet computers loaded with hundreds of medical textbooks to prospective medical students and residents.
Ayi was recently recognized in Washington, D.C., with the Community Champion Award from the Ghana Diaspora Public Affairs Collective for her efforts in making a positive change in Ghana.
“They felt that some of the work I had done had touched people in some way,” she said.
Ayi’s dedication to global health equity, according to Essentia CEO Dr. David Herman, is something the medical center is proud of.
“At Essentia Health, our mission is to make a healthy difference in people’s lives, and Dr. Ayi has gone above and beyond to do just that,” Herman said.
Ayi wants to use money from a nonprofit to one day create a medical school in Ghana. She estimates that the nation needs up to 15 medical schools to generate an acceptable number of doctors.
She wants people in Fargo-Moorhead and beyond to realize that everyone’s health is connected to the health of the entire world.
The Ebola virus, COVID-19, and more recently monkeypox outbreaks all over the world serve as evidence that a potentially fatal illness is only a short flight away.
“If you take care of health in any part of the world, … you’ve also taken care of your own health,” she said.