For over 20 years, Dr. Naa and her husband Eddie have led efforts to care for people with HIV and AIDS in Ghana. During that time, their clinic has treated more than 15,000 patients and their foundation has reached millions of Ghanaians to reduce the spread of the disease and the stigma faced by those who have it.
In this episode, we’ll learn about Dr. Naa’s journey from her childhood in rural Ghana to becoming a Dutch-trained medical doctor treating patients with nowhere else to turn. She’ll also share one of the best falling-in-love stories you’ve ever heard. Dr. Naa is an unstoppable force for healing and encouragement and this interview with inspire you with hope and confidence in the face of difficult challenges.
About Our Guest
Dr. Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton is the CEO of the West Africa AIDS Foundation and Medical Director of the International Health Care Clinic in Ghana. She’s also the author of the book, Hardship and Hope: Dr. Naa's Love Affair with Persons Living with HIV and AIDS.
Dr. Naa earned her MD from Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, with additional studies in tropical diseases at The School of Public Health in Utrecht. Together with her husband, Eddie Donton, the two have worked tirelessly to treat and improve the lives of people with HIV and AIDS throughout Ghana.
Dr. Naa’s book
West Africa AIDS Foundation programs and services
The Wli Waterfalls
A video interview with Dr. Naa on The Standpoint
About Merit Leadership
To learn more about how you can develop ethical skills that turn peril into opportunity, visit http://meritleadership.com
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[00:00:00] Dr. Naa: And he just kept on going and going and going, you know. And I was like, won't this man ever stop? And then I remember after almost about an hour on the phone, he hanged up and then within five minutes, he called back again. And then I was like, "Oh, did you forget something?" He was like, "I think I forgot to say goodnight."
And I was like, "oh, okay, well, good night," because it was quite late. And I was like, what a strange person this man is.
[00:00:27] Narration - Aaron: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode two: "HIV in Ghana, Hardship and Hope."
This episode of How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.
In Ghana, West Africa, there's a stunning series of waterfalls called the Wli falls. It's actually the tallest waterfall in that part of the continent, 80 meters high or over 260 feet from top to bottom. You'll find it in what's called the Volta region, which is a beautiful mountainous area in that part of the country.
The 45-minute hike to the falls takes you over foot bridges and between the thickly forested slopes of the Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary. It's a hot, but beautiful hike, and eventually you can hear the roar of the falls grow. When the huge waterfall finally comes into view, you immediately feel the thick, humid air replaced by a fresh, cool, constant breeze.
All along the cliff walls, high overhead hundreds of fruit bats, dangle from the rocks and vegetation that they call home. There's a large pool at the base and that's where the timid will wade in. But the courageous will go all the way to the falls and step under them. It's intimidating for sure, because you've never felt that much water crashing down on you all at once. But it's also invigorating, a word that means being filled with strength and energy.
I don't know how long the falls have been there, but I imagine it's been thousands of years and will be for many thousands more. In the local language of Ewe, the name of the falls means "Allow me to flow." When you see them in person, it's hard to imagine anything stopping them.
It's not far from this amazing place that another unstoppable life giving force was born. Her name is Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton, or as most people call her Dr. Naa.
[00:02:41] Dr. Naa: But there are more, there are more names to my name. There are more names behind those names, too. So my name is actually Desiree Delilah Marieka Elsie, which Marieka Elsie is they are Dutch names, Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye. Those are the names that appear in my passport, but then I also have a Ghanaian name, which is Akosua, and Akosua means I was born on a Sunday. And there is also an attachment to the Akosua. It's Akosua Vii and the Vii is from the Volta region where I was born. And the Vii means very little.
And according to my mother, when, when I was, when I was born, I was so small, the people in the Volta region gave me that name. And then obviously after my marriage, I added Donton to my last name. So now I'm Vanderpuye-Donton. So it has become a very long name.
[00:03:29] Narration - Aaron: Dr. Naa is the CEO of the West Africa AIDS Foundation, called WAAF for short, and also co-leads the International Health Care Clinic that's paired with it. She's the author of the book, Hardship and Hope, a memoir about her love affair with persons living with HIV and AIDS. For the last 20 years, she and her husband, Eddie Donton, have championed the cause of people with HIV, and together with their staff have saved countless lives. Dr. Naa is my guest for this episode and her story is going to amaze you.
[00:04:06] Dr. Naa: People say, "Dr. Naa, how did you end up coming here?" And I was like, well, I have to go very far to start the process, you know, of how I ended up with WAAF.
[00:04:15] Narration - Aaron: Throughout this episode, we're going to learn how she went from her birth and upbringing in rural Ghana to becoming a Dutch trained medical doctor. Along the way, we're also going to learn all about the current state of HIV treatment in West Africa, the struggles of those who are trying to help, and what lessons all of us can learn from this unstoppable force of a person. To get started, I want to give you some brief context about HIV in Ghana, where around 350,000 people live with the virus. And contrary to common misconceptions. HIV is no longer the death sentence that it once was.
[00:04:54] Dr. Naa: Now, if I compare HIV to when we started, there's so much we know about how this virus replicates in the human body. And that's why actually they've been able to come out with the antiretroviral medicines that are able to ensure that somebody who is HIV positive and takes the medication can attain viral suppression, where if you go looking for the virus, you are not able to find it.
And once you're not able to find it, it's very difficult for the person to pass it onto another person, even, you know, through unprotected sexual contact, through mother to child. And these are all the things that today we are able to, to address.
[00:05:37] Narration - Aaron: Antiretroviral medicines, or ARVs for short, are a highly effective way to suppress the virus from becoming rampant enough to damage the immune system and turn into AIDS, a disease that leaves a person so vulnerable to other illnesses that even a common cold can cause death. With massive support from the UN, NGOs, and government agencies, ARVs are now in abundant supply such that, in most of the world, anyone with HIV can stay on the medications and never experience the threat of AIDS. ARVs help hIV patients live long happy lives and even have children of their own.
[00:06:17] Dr. Naa: In Ghana for instance, you know, most people who are in what we call a discordant couple, so where one is HIV positive and one is not, if they have a child wish, they go the natural way because we don't have all the sophisticated, you know, methods like IVFs and all of those things. It's way too expensive. It has become possible because the one in the relationship who is HIV positive should be on, on the antiretrovirals because we know how the, the HIV works in the system. We know how to combat it. And so the person is having viral suppression, even if they have unprotected sex because there is a child wish, the chance of the positive one infecting the negative one is literally zero. And when they get pregnant, if it is the woman who is HIV positive and is now carrying a pregnancy, again because of the same medications that ensure viral suppression, the mother is not going to pass it through to the unborn child during pregnancy and will not pass it to the child also during delivery.
So a lot has changed when it comes to, to HIV. It is no more that when you get it, it's a death sentence. You will die if you don't go on treatment, you know, but the medicines are accessible and they do a great job. And once you take them correctly, look after yourself holistically, side effects are very minimum.
And these days, even we have combined tablets where you end up just taking one tablet a day. So, so much has changed.
[00:07:47] Narration - Aaron: It's only been in the last two decades that ARVs have made living with HIV possible. For the 30 to 40 years before then, getting HIV was devastating. It wasn't a question of if it would kill you, but when.
Dr. Naa grew up in Ghana during the seventies and early eighties, when HIV and AIDS spread until it rampaged across Africa, though it never directly impacted her or her family. We're going to return soon to the work that WAAF does to battle HIV, but let's first learn more about how Dr. Naa came to be doing this work at all.
Her upbringing was typical for other kids in Ghana during the time, except for her parents.
[00:08:30] Dr. Naa: So my mother is from the Netherlands. Her dad was a pure Dutch and her mom was half German and half Dutch. And the story about my mom is that she actually left Ghana at a very young age because she had a very difficult youth.
She was an only child. And it looks like her mom, that's my grandmother, had some very interesting impression about Africa. We don't really know how she got that. Whether she used to read fiction stories about Africa or what we don't really know, but at some point in time she got so fascinated by Africa that it happened that my dad, who is a Ghanaian, had an opportunity to go to the Netherlands to further his education. He, he studied animal husbandry and it so happened that the facility where he was schooling, my grandmother was doing some work there. And so she got in touch with my dad. The story goes that she kept on pushing my mother that, you know, you need to go to Africa because this gentleman looked like a, a good man, he would be a good husband for you. you know. So cutting a long story short at the end of the day, it was my grandmother who literally sent my mother to Africa. And so my mom, she comes to a country at the age of 16 and never traveled before, even within the Netherlands, and then has to go on a flight and come to Africa.
And so obviously they get married and it takes a while, thankfully, before they get their first child, which is me born in 1971.
[00:10:03] Narration - Aaron: Shortly after she was born, Naa's family moved from the Volta region to Northern Ghana, a mostly rural part of the country. They lived modestly and not did what most kids did then: fetching water, helping with chores, and ,which is still common in much of the country, she would walk a long distance to school every day. The trip took around 40 minutes each way, but because of her dad, school was never something she would miss. His personal experiences with getting an education meant that his four daughters would be well-schooled.
[00:10:38] Dr. Naa: My dad, he was very well educated. The story goes that he wanted to actually be a medical doctor. And from what I know, he got admission into one of the universities in, in the United States, way back. He had a full scholarship. There was quite a bit of jealousy amongst his siblings, and so this letter was hidden.
By the time he got it, the time had elapsed. And so obviously that opportunity was gone, but then, you know, very furious, my dad had said that one day he would find his way either to the United States or to Europe, and he was going to marry a white woman and he was going to bring the woman back to Ghana. So it looks like this was his mission. That's what I think.
And it sort of worked out. He found himself in the Netherlands and that's how my mother and my father met, got married. I have three siblings. I ended up being a medical doctor. The one after me ended up being a dentist, the third one ended up being a nurse, and then the last one ended up being a lawyer.
I think my dad had been through quite a bit of, uh, you know, difficulties in bringing himself up where education is concerned. He never had the support of his, his parents, not his siblings. So when he had children of his own, he kept on saying to us, you know, from a very young age, "Education is all you need. And I will make sure my kids get the education they need." And we all had to be very, very disciplined when it got to going to school. And not just even in attendance, but he expected us to excel in terms of our performance in school.
[00:12:08] Narration - Aaron: Where her father instilled hard work and discipline, Naa's mother exemplified kindness.
[00:12:14] Dr. Naa: Coming to a country where she literally had to learn everything about the, you know, the, the culture, the language, you know, I think that all of those things really humbled her. And so she always remained this very kindhearted woman and, you know, always willing to support in any way she can. Even though she will tell you, "There's not much I can do, but whatever I can do for you, I will do." And she's always remained that way.
[00:12:41] Narration - Aaron: All through these early years of learning, from the very beginning, Naa had set her sights on becoming a medical doctor, even though she can't remember exactly why. Perhaps it was just her destiny. The one thing that was clear is nothing was going to stop her.
[00:12:59] Dr. Naa: As to why I had decided at age two that I wanted to be a medical doctor, I have no clue. But that's what my mom says. Because my dad, like I said, he was working with the animal husbandry, my mom was more of a homemaker, you know, she was just home and managing the house. So no idea where this, you know, wanting to be a doctor came from, but that's what I wanted to be ever since I could remember.
And so I followed my dream and eventually made it come true.
[00:13:29] Narration - Aaron: Making that dream come true proved to be far more difficult than she could ever imagine. It was during her teenage years, after her family had moved to the capital of Accra, that Naa's life was unexpectedly turned upside down. She was completely uprooted from her childhood home during what they thought would be a short trip to the Netherlands.
[00:13:50] Dr. Naa: My mom and my dad, just like every married couple there are some ups and downs, and so at some point he had reached his retirement age. We were living in a house that had been given to us by the government because of the work that my dad was doing. So now coming on retirement, it means that we would have to look for another place. And I know it was an issue because we didn't know where we were going to go. My dad was the breadwinner and what he was making with his work with the government was very minimal. So not a whole lot of savings had been done.
So I know that was very stressful on my mother. That was when she decided she needed a break and she wanted to go to the Netherlands for, you know, just for a little break. And that's when my dad, he passed away whilst we were away.
[00:14:36] Narration - Aaron: Naa's father died from a simple case of appendicitis that was treated just too late. It was a completely avoidable tragedy that left Naa's mother no choice but to stay in the Netherlands where she and her daughters could get the help they needed from family and friends. All of a sudden, Naa was facing life and school in a place that was almost totally foreign to her.
[00:14:59] Dr. Naa: My mother had never intended for us to go back to the Netherlands. She had never really prepared us for anything like that in terms of, you know, the language. None of us spoke Dutch. She never spoke Dutch to us. We had been to the Netherlands I think like twice, but I couldn't even remember because we were very little at the time. So you find yourself, you are there, your father has passed away, you know, this is where you most likely are going to have to continue with the rest of your life. So it was very hard. You don't speak the language. You, you are leaving your friends behind Ghana. You are leaving your school. Yeah, it was, it was hard dealing with all of those.
[00:15:37] Narration - Aaron: For someone who had always excelled in school, this new challenge was overwhelming. Naa was placed two grades back from where she had expected to be. And now had to figure out how to learn math, science, and everything else in a completely new language.
[00:15:52] Dr. Naa: And we ended up in a school with kids that speak only Dutch, barely any English. The only time we spoke English was when we had English lessons, which we loved. At least I loved very much because at least I could understand something, you know. But then for the rest, you are in a classroom where, when the teacher is speaking you, you don't know what she's saying. You look at the books and you don't know what it is that they're saying.
So I would have to be taken out of the classroom, and most of the time the teachers will assign one or two of the students to work with us. And we would literally have to start learning things around us, just word-by-word. So maybe like a tree, they will tell us it's "boom" in Dutch, you know, or they would say car will be "auto", or they would say house, would be "huis". You know, we had to literally learn everything. It was very frustrating.
[00:16:40] Narration - Aaron: Now being so far behind in a place where she was accustomed to excellence, Naa's self-confidence was shaken. But the persistence in school that she had learned from the beginning never left.
[00:16:53] Dr. Naa: And so my mother, she got us, a private teacher where after school we would come home and we would have to go there every single day, just to be able to try to quickly, you know, get a little bit of a hold on the Dutch language. And we were always making mistakes. So because of that, it really made me become a little bit timid. I wouldn't be able to express myself. And that also had quite a bit of an impact on me. I wasn't able to move through life the way I wanted, because I wasn't having control over the Dutch language.
[00:17:24] Aaron: How do you, in that situation, how do you end up in medical school? I mean, it seems like you have all of these challenges stacked on top of you. It would be reasonable for somebody to assume that it would be impossible to end up in medical school after all of that.
[00:17:39] Dr. Naa: Exactly. And to be honest, at some point, I thought my dream was over, but I didn't want to allow it to be over. I was like, I have to be a medical doctor. That is what I want to be. And so I kept my focus and I kept pushing and I kept studying and I kept doing all I could to, to have some control over this language. And I was like, well, the good thing was because we had been set back in years, I think two years I went back, a lot of the things, once you figured it out, it was quite easy.
So like for math, for instance, I had no problems. I could do math, no problems, because I, I was way ahead. And then, you know, with English, obviously, no problems. So I was like, well, do the best you can. And so that's what I did. And eventually I think my lowest score was Dutch. Dutch I didn't score too well, but I scored a passing mark and so I moved to the next level.
And then on the next level, I started getting comfortable and I said to my mom, "I wanna, I wanna skip one class." So my mom was, "Are you sure you can do this?" And I was like, "Yeah, I can." I mean, my marks are quite good. It's just a Dutch language that keeps me from moving faster, but I know I can do it. So my mom had gone to seek advice from the teachers and, you know, most of them had said, "If it wasn't for the Dutch language, we will say, go ahead."
But about 90% of them had said 50-50 with about 10% saying absolutely not. You know, , but I said to my mother, "No way. I'm going to do this. And I, I will take the risk and I'll take the, the consequences of whatever happens." And so lo and behold, they made me do it.
So now I was kind of like just one year back compared to my student colleagues in Ghana. And I had to work very hard. It was hard, but I was very determined and I passed. I mean, I, I didn't fail. I passed . Yeah. And I passed relatively good too. And then there I was, "Okay. Now I wanna go to medical school."
[00:19:31] Narration - Aaron: Because of the lottery-style system in the Netherlands, Naa wasn't accepted to medical school until her second attempt. But after she missed out the first time, true to form, she enrolled in health science classes so that she could keep up with the material that she was missing in medical school. This helped her graduate more quickly when she finally did enroll.
And upon graduating from medical school, she had to decide what to do next. And that was her first chance to return to her childhood home, but this time as a doctor.
[00:20:01] Dr. Naa: When I was in my last year, I said to myself, "Okay, now I'm almost there, but now am I really sure now I want to go back to Ghana? It's been a while. I wanna go back and see how things are working there as a medical person."
And so I opted for an internship in a hospital in the Eastern part of Ghana, I was there for almost six months in my last year of medical school and I loved it. I just loved it. I mean, they, they posted me to a very remote area at that time. This was in 1997, no electricity. So I ended up doing a Cesarian section with, you know, with lanterns. And delivering babies, you know, normally with, with, well, also with lanterns. And you know, and so many things that we did there. And I was like, yes, this is, this is really what I wanna do. This is where help is needed. I need finish and come back here.
[00:20:59] Narration - Aaron: Returning to Ghana to practice medicine turned out to be a longer and unexpected road. Her first goal was to get more experience in a range of medical issues, including tropical medicine, pediatrics, and even some surgery. That time lasted another four years in the Netherlands post medical school, but she was getting vital training.
It was then that her mother unwittingly put into motion, the steps that would change Dr. Naa's life in every way possible.
[00:21:28] Dr. Naa: We had settled now in the Netherlands, but all four girls were now out of the house. So my mother was like, "I think I want to go back to Ghana." Because my mother had become more of a Ghanaian. You know, she came when she was 16, she had lived all her life here. And she literally, I mean, if my mother is speaking to you, you think you are speaking to a Ghanaian woman. It's only when you see her that you see a white lady. She loves Ghana so much.
So she had said to me, "You know, I just, I'm just not happy here. I wanna go back. You girls are all okay. Now I wanna go back to Ghana." And so that's where she meets Eddie for the very first time.
[00:22:03] Narration - Aaron: Eddie is Eddie Donton, founder of the West Africa AIDS Foundation and the International Health Care Clinic. I need to tell you about Eddie. I wanted to have him be a part of this episode as well because he is an amazing human being, but because of work demands we weren't able to schedule the time.
I'll start by telling you about Eddie through Naa's words. This is an excerpt from her book:
"Certain characteristics seem to come to mind when people describe Eddie. When he enters a room, his presence pervades the space and beckons for attention. He is a lean man, well dressed and articulate. When he speaks, he talks with a purposeful and deliberate manner. Eddie is direct and unyielding to obstacles."
This was the man that Naa's mother soon came to meet after returning to Ghana. It was the result of a chance encounter involving some Akita dogs that needed breeding. Eddie happened to own the same breed as Naa's mom and, never missing the chance to get to know someone, Eddie quickly struck up a conversation
[00:23:08] Dr. Naa: And Eddie, he talks a lot. He talks, he's a talkative. So he starts talking to my mother, you know, doesn't know my mother from anywhere, but starts talking. He's running this clinic, which is supposed to help HIV people. And he just started it, but it's more difficult than he thought difficult getting doctors.
So then when he mentions doctors, then my mother, you know, it raises her eyebrow. She's like, "Oh, you know, my eldest, she's a doctor." And so Eddie gets interested and he's like, "Really? Is she here?" Then my mother's like, "No, she's still in the Netherlands. That's where she studied. But she is planning to come to Ghana."
Eddie gets very interested. He's like, "Really?" So then my mother says, "Yeah, I should put the two of you in touch."
[00:23:53] Narration - Aaron: With Naa's number in hand, Eddie wasted no time.
[00:23:57] Dr. Naa: So that's how I finally get in touch with Eddie. My mother gives Eddie my contact details in the Netherlands, and then she calls me and says, "You wouldn't believe this. I met this interesting man. He speaks a lot. I don't really know, but he says he used to live in California. He mentioned something about HIV and he's running a clinic. And he's looking for doctors. So you should talk to him. So I've given him your number. He might call you." That was it.
I remember very well the first time Eddie gave me a call. I picked up the phone and he was like, "Oh, my name is Eddie. I got your contact details from your mother." And I said, "Yeah, my mother mentioned this to me. So yeah, I was expecting your call actually."
And then he started on the very first day talking a whole lot about this HIV and the NGO he has started, and how difficult it is but the need is so great. People don't have access to their care they need. People are dying of AIDS. And literally the facility he opened up is more like a dumping site. And so now he wants to know, am I really coming to Ghana to work?
And I said, "Yeah, I'm coming. That's my plan. But I don't know anything about HIV." That's what I told him. "I, I don't know anything about infectious diseases, HIV. I've never done this stuff, so I'm not really sure, but I would be interested, you know, to come and take a look when I'm in Ghana the next time." And he was like, "Oh yeah, that, that would be fantastic."
And he just kept on going and going and going, you know, and I was like, "Won't this man ever stop?" And then I remember after almost about an hour on the phone, he hanged up and then within five minutes, he called back again. And then I was like, "Oh, did you forget something?" He was like, "I, I think I forgot to say goodnight." And I was like, "Oh, okay, well, goodnight." Because it was quite late.
And I was like, what a strange person, this man is. That's what I thought to myself. And I was like, okay. And then the interesting thing is that ever since that very first phone call from Eddie, he would call like once a week. It was kind of like he was afraid I wouldn't come to Ghana. And he was bent on getting me to work at, at WAAF and IHCC. That's the impression I got. So he would call like once a week. "Oh, I'm just checking on you. You know, do you have a date when you are coming to Ghana?" And that sort of thing. "Are you still considering coming to take a look at my place?" "Oh yeah. I will come. Definitely. I will come. I will come check it out."
Eventually the calls became more frequent. So when I go to work and I come home, I'll see blinking. I put it on. It's Eddie, you know, he's left messages. Almost every day there are messages. I'm like, "Oh, this guy."
[00:26:33] Narration - Aaron: After nine months of calls, Naa finally made a trip to Ghana. All of those conversations had left Naa excited, but also a little anxious, to finally see Eddie in person.
[00:26:45] Dr. Naa: I guess, because we had already been speaking like almost every day, there was some connection already between the two of us. But just on phone. But in a way I was like, I really need to see this man face to face. So if he would come to the airport, actually I would like this.
So I landed at the airport. I'm going to the belt to get my bag. And then all of a sudden, I just get the feeling that somebody is watching me. And so I look up and then I see this man. He has found his way all the way into the, where, where we take our luggage.
And he's just suddenly looking at me and I'm like, that's Eddie. Cause he had showed me a picture. So I looked at him and then he is looking at me and then he waved and then I waved. And so I walk to him and I said, "You are Eddie." And he was like, "Yes." Then he just hugged me. and I'm like, "Whoa!"
[00:27:34] Narration - Aaron: Naa stayed with her mom, but made multiple trips to the clinic that Eddie had started at the time. There were no ARVs available. So the clinic was almost exclusively a hospice where AIDS patients would go to die.
[00:27:49] Dr. Naa: He had this concept of the hospice. So there were full blown AIDS people, people were literally on their deathbed, no families. And even if families were there, they were outside of the facility, afraid to go in. Such high levels of stigma. You could see questions on the eyes of people. As I was working there, I didn't see any sort of coordinated care. I kept asking questions, "Who is responsible? Who are the doctors here who work for them?" He said he had doctors who come in, but they go. The nurses too were not doing their jobs very well. It was a mess.
And I was like, "Oh my goodness, how can I ever work in a place like this?" First of all, you know, my knowledge about HIV is not a whole lot. And I wouldn't know how to do this, but I was very interested. I was like, "They need so much help. I need to try and do something to help these people."
[00:28:40] Narration - Aaron: At this point, we should learn more about why HIV continues to be untreated in Ghana and the rest of Africa. The UN goal for Ghana and other countries is to have 90% of HIV patients to be getting effective ARV treatment. Right now in Ghana, that number is less than 20%. The principle issue is stigma. Most people there have inaccurate understandings of the disease and they're deeply entrenched.
[00:29:09] Dr. Naa: What we really have had to deal with is people in Ghana having this idea that if you are HIV positive, they think it's a, it's a curse. You know, it's, it's something that has been put on you by some dead person, you know, that had something to do with you or had some grudges with you. It's a supernatural type of thing, and that has caused you to, to have HIV.
That's very predominant in Ghana. The other thing is the ones where people think that everybody who has HIV must be a promiscuous person. It means that you've been going about having sex with multiple people, even if you are married. And it means that you've been doing something. And I think that is what has been, you know, fueling the stigma, because obviously if you are married person and you are HIV positive, how did you get it? You, you must have gone to do something behind your husband or your wife's back. That's how they perceive it to be.
And then also the misconceptions about how you can get it in terms of, you know, casual contacts. You know, if you eat with somebody who has it, you definitely will get it. So that also fuels the stigma.
[00:30:17] Narration - Aaron: The result of stigma in Ghana means that people with HIV still often don't get the treatment that they need. There's a deep fear of being ostracized. In fact, a UN study of Ghanaians from 2014 asked, "Would you buy fresh vegetables from a shopkeeper or vendor if you knew that this person had HIV?" Over 60% of the respondents said no, even though there's no health risk in this situation.
This is where WAAF comes. Its mission is to raise awareness around HIV issues and educate people on how the disease works and spreads. At the beginning though, without adequate funding and access to ARVs, Eddie's clinic was just serving AIDS patients at the end of their life.
But Eddie was already an expert in end-of-life treatment. Before coming back to Ghana--he'd been born there, but lived in the us--Eddie ran a large and very profitable group of hospices in Southern California. His career had started in finance, but in 1994 his son, the older of his two kids, passed away from sickle cell disease. It was a shattering time that also proved overwhelming to his marriage.
The whole experience brought Eddie face-to-face with end of life care and how desperately it needed to improve for patients and families. Just one year after his son's death, he opened his first hospice in Riverside. This was before widespread availability of ARVs anywhere, including America. And so Eddie's hospice ended up with an influx of AIDS patients.
In addition to being an administrator, he also kept himself directly involved in providing care. Over the coming years, he opened more hospices nearby. Then in 1998, Eddie returned to Ghana for the funeral of a longtime friend. This visit opened his eyes to the desperate need of hospice care in that country.
After extensive research and meeting with health professionals, he opened the International Health Care Clinic in a place called Roman Ridge, followed by the West Africa AIDS Foundation one year later. This decision changed his life forever after.
Running the new clinic, along with the hospices back in California, was overwhelming. It also drained his personal finances. So at a time when most people would've given up, Eddie determined that the only way for this to work was to fully commit. So he stayed in Ghana for good.
It wasn't long after this that Naa came into his life. They grew closer during her visit there, but the big moment came when Eddie had the idea to take Naa on a surprise hunting trip. That morning Eddie was scheduled to give a radio interview and invited Naa to come along. And what happened next is one of the craziest stories I know of how two people fell in love.
[00:33:14] Dr. Naa: So the two of us drove to the radio station and he went into, you know, the recording room. He gave a wonderful talk about HIV and I just listened to it. And I was very impressed. I was like, wow, he knows what he's doing.
So after the program, I thought, "Oh, he's gonna take me back to my mother." But then on the way he says, "Oh, I'm taking you somewhere special." "Like really? Where are we going?" He says, "Oh, somewhere special. I can't tell you now." And I said, "Oh." Then he says, "Yeah, but you know, this is in the bushes somewhere."
I was like, "Oh, I don't think this is safe." Then he was like, "Oh no. I mean, I wouldn't do anything that is not safe with you." I was like, "Okay. But let's just truly make it safe."
We end up picking up this gentleman. I saw he was holding a gun and I was like, huh, what is this all about? And he says, "We are going hunting." And I'm like, "No, no, I don't. I've never hunted before. I don't know anything about guns. I don't even like the fact that people shoot their animals." I was like, well, I'm here. I mean, what can I do? I'm already here. You know, he drives myself and his friend way deep into the bushes and I'm like, "Where are we?" He says, "Oh, we come here all the time." I'm like, "Okay, I'm relying on the both of you."
So then we get out of the car. You know, we get into a very thick part of the bushes. And now he says, "This is the area where the antelopes and you know, other game, they come out. But we have to be very still." So we are standing there about 10, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. I don't see any animal.
And then, you know, his friend starts to move a little bit away. I'm like, "Where is he going?" And then Eddie says, "He's going to the other parts. These animals, they come all over the place."
And so now it's just Eddie and myself, and I'm so tired. It's late in the afternoon and we've been up all day. And so I'm sitting there, I'm looking around under the thick bushes. I'm like, "I don't hear anything. Are you sure these animals are coming?" He's like, "Be still. Be still."
So we are still, and then all of a sudden from nowhere, I hear this gunshot boom. And then I turn and I look at him. I look at his boot. I said, "Did you shoot your foot?" And then after like two, three seconds, it records in his head. Then he's like "I shot my foot!" And I'm like, "You shot your foot!"
So I get up. I run to him. The gun falls on the ground. He starts to fall to the ground. And I look at this boot and I see this huge hole in the boot. I'm like, this is not good. And I take off the boot and he has blown his toes off, the two toes.
[00:35:39] Aaron: Oh my gosh.
[00:35:40] Dr. Naa: And I'm like, now you have it done. In the meantime, there comes his friend shouting, "Did you shoot something?" And I'm like, "Yeah, his foot! You know, can you come quickly? We need to get him out of here."
He was screaming now because he was feeling the pain now. And I was like, I need to stop the bleeding. So I tied the t-shirt around. And I'm like, "We gotta get out of here as fast as we can." So the friend comes and takes Eddie on his back. We finally get to the vehicle, we put him in there and we are like "Quick! We need to get to the nearest hospital."
And that's when the whole ordeal started.
[00:36:17] Narration - Aaron: It really was an ordeal. After two days of visiting hospitals, they finally met with surgeons trained in these sorts of injuries. But with one look, the doctors immediately recommended amputation. Worried that he'd never play tennis again, Eddie refused and they left.
Dr. Naa was his last best hope.
[00:36:38] Dr. Naa: He says, "I'm not going back there. You need to take care of this food for me." And I'm like, uh oh. So I said, "Okay, I will do the best I can." So right there in his little apartment behind the WAAF and IHCC, I would go there every day. I would go there to clean it for him. And it was, it was such a huge wound and, oh, it was so bad.
But then my time came, because I wasn't done with everything I was doing in the Netherlands. I wasn't in Ghana full-time at that time. I'd come for just a period to see his facility and, you know, go back. And then if I was willing to come and work with WAAF, I would go and, you know, finish things up and, and, and come back.
So I had to go back because I was working and I told him, I said, "My time is up." And he was like, "You can't go. You are, you have to, you have to help save my foot."
[00:37:27] Narration - Aaron: Naa decided to extend her stay for two weeks. Every day, multiple times a day now would clean and dress his wound to fight off infection. Steadily Eddie's foot began to heal. Then the time came that Naa really did have to leave.
[00:37:45] Dr. Naa: He seemed to be tolerating it quite. He was even able to drive me to the airport. I said to him, I said, "No, you can't drive me to the airport." He says, "No, my car is, is an automatic car. I will use my other foot. I should be fine. Just bandage it very well for me. And I will, you know, I will manage."
But in the meantime, you know, it's just being close to Eddie this much, catering for his foot, and it had really drawn us very close together. So when he dropped me at the airport, I, I didn't really wanna go, I didn't wanna leave him in this state, but at the same time I knew I had to go. There were things I had to finish.
Oh, it was horrible. I, I remember crying and I don't know why I was crying. You know, I was crying. I was like, "I can't leave this man this way!" And I was miserable. The whole flight back to the Netherlands.
But then what I did when I got back, I quickly got in touch with one of the surgeons at the hospital where I had worked. And I said, "Listen, this is a situation I have with a very good friend. And he, you know, he had this gunshot wound. We've done all we could, but I want to see if, if, if we bring him to the Netherlands. If you can take a look and see what you recommend." And he was like, "Sure, as long as he can come, I will take a look."
So I arranged and Eddie flew to the Netherlands. The surgeon took a look and he says, "Well, whatever you guys were doing, you know, it looks like it's been very good. Just keep on doing this. The wound will heal. We don't need any further surgery. He should be able to walk. He should be able to play he, his tennis. He should be able to have a full recovery."
So Eddie was very happy. So he says, "Okay then instead of going back to Ghana, I'll stay for a while in the Netherlands." So he was with me and I guess that's really what brought us even closer together. And it moved from just being ordinary friendship to something else.
And so I said to him, "You know, just, just give me some little time to wrap up things in the Netherlands and then I'm gonna come and I'm gonna work with you. And we are gonna make this thing work."
We did our little small ceremony, uh, of getting married and everything. And then shortly after that is when I found out that I was pregnant. And so I was like, okay, you know, maybe let me just have my child. And then it would be around the time that I wrap up things. And then I, I will just move to Ghana.
[00:40:01] Narration - Aaron: I adore this story. It's the kind of love story that really makes you believe that some people were meant to be together. And in this case, it wasn't just for the happiness of Naa and Eddie, the kind you'd see in a fairytale. Their combined efforts as a couple have literally saved countless lives. And building WAAF wasn't just some happily ever after either. It was a mountain of hard work. More on that after the break.
But before we go to break, and if you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. And also tell your friends about the show. Those two things are the best way for us to reach more listeners. Now for a word from our sponsor.
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Dr. Naa and Eddie now have four kids of their own: three boys and a girl. That, all will building up WAAF and the clinic basically from scratch. As you can imagine, it has been challenging.
[00:41:57] Aaron: How have you been able to balance your family and the work that you do that you both do that is so demanding?
[00:42:04] Dr. Naa: Yeah, it's been very tough and I will say tougher for me as a mother. Because from day one, I have actually been working as a frontline medical doctor looking after mainly HIV positive clients, but also people who come that are not HIV. So basically running the clinic, having to do, you know, both clinical work and administration.
And then on top of that, having to cater for your family and your children, it, it hasn't been easy. And, you know, and, and also for the fact that the kids have, well, I don't why we planned it like that, but they are all two years apart. And it was quite stressful on me.
And not just even in terms of the everyday work, but also emotionally, because you deal as a medical doctor with all types of people, including children. And I have had instances where it, it hasn't gone well with infants, you know, children, babies. And then you, you see that, and then you, you think of your own and you are like, "Wow. You know, what, how would you feel if it were your own?"
Especially one time when I had, when I had to go and pronounce like a young girl. I think she was about maybe seven or six and she had died actually on the way. So when I got there, the child was already dead. But then, you know, something like this just requires you doing quite a bit of paperwork and calling family and, you know, kind of like being there for the family.
And, and then I just looked at again and I was like, "Wow, six years old. This is like my, like my son, you know, what would I do if I were the mother, I wouldn't be able to take this." So you just take it as a mother, you just feel it so badly and then you go back, your kids are there and then you are like, "Oh, this is just not fair!"
It's, it's very difficult. Trying to just separate the two.
[00:43:50] Narration - Aaron: Of course, Dr. Naa and Eddie don't do this work alone. It's also been the work of an incredible staff at their clinic and nonprofit. In her book, Naa goes out of her way to tell all kinds of stories about the faithful staff that have helped realize this vision.
These are incredible people. You remember earlier when we talked about the stigma faced by HIV patients? Well, the same stigma attaches to anyone who works or lives with people who have HIV.
[00:44:21] Dr. Naa: No, it's not just with those who are having HIV it's with anybody who is somehow connected to patients living with HIV. So, which means that people like myself and my staff. We were all known to be HIV positive, just because of the fact that we worked there. And so we would be denied access. The men to go to have a, the barber, give them a haircut. They said, "No, because we know you are coming from that place. And all of you, there is too much HIV. We don't want anything to do with that."
And so many other examples. Staff used to go to buy, like, sodas. They'll be denied it because they said, "Don't come and let people see you holding our bottles. Because if they see you holding our bottles, they think all our bottles are contaminated with HIV. So don't come here."
So it's been, it is been very hard. Not that to say it bothers me. I, I don't really mind that people think I'm HIV positive , but I know it has affected some staff. Their children are being laughed at at school that, you know, "Your mother is HIV positive." Only for the fact that she works, you know, in a facility that caters for people living with HIV.
[00:45:25] Aaron: Why do your staff keep coming? Why do they keep working for you despite all that?
[00:45:30] Dr. Naa: You know, that's a great question. And most of my staff, especially those at the clinic, are staff that have been with us for the longest. I mean, if anybody has left, it has been maybe because they had a very unique situation. But most of the staff are the ones that have been with us all this time.
And I, I just think we have come to build a strong team at the clinic. We all work together when it comes to HIV and we support ourselves 100%. We take care of ourselves. Let me put it like that, because it is not easy. We get stigmatized. We get looked down upon. We deal with very difficult situations. Sometimes, you know, not just the direct medical care we give to people, but the psychosocial, which is, which is really the toughest part. What we go and see in people's homes, what people come and tell us. And how we have to deal in trying to save a couple's relationship, just because one has HIV and one doesn't have.
And ,you know, mothers who have found out that they're HIV positive and want to get pregnant and are so afraid. Young girls who have found out that they are positive and think that's the end of their life. Because in Ghana, you know, a young girl, at some point you need to get married. You need to have children. They come to us. What should we do?
We are constantly dealing with.Very, you know, intimate issues and a lot of psychosocial problems. So it's very important that we take care of ourselves. And I think as a team, we really do. We look out for one another and I think that is really what has kept us going all these years.
I am very open. I make sure they know I really appreciate them. Where they don't perform, I tell them. But where they do perform, I commend them. When they do great things, I make sure they know about it. And I think that is what has really kept them going, you know? And they say good things about me too, so, which is good.
[00:47:25] Narration - Aaron: I could make an entire series of episodes just about Dr. Naa, Eddie, and their experiences building WAAF. Instead, I strongly encourage you to read her book, Hardship and Hope. You'll find a link to it in the show notes, but here's Dr. Naa summarizing what those early years were like.
[00:47:44] Dr. Naa: The little we had, we would pay the staff, you know, and we would be last. And many a time we would end up not having any money to pay ourselves. But then it's amazing how we were able to, to, to just, you know, carry on. But there was no way you could call this a salary or even an allowance. Gradually we started getting some funding in the beginning. It was also not anything to write home about.
And so it continued for a very long time that way. We must have been getting some help from somewhere to push us through that. You know, you don't realize it is there. But it takes you through, you know. And it's amazing now. Some new staff that have joined WAAF, because of projects that have come on board. I just look at them and I'm like, "You don't know what we have been through!" You know, because now everything is so much easier. Everything is budgeted for. I'm like, "Are you for real?"
[00:48:38] Narration - Aaron: The work of the foundation and clinic has grown dramatically. They no longer provide end-of-life care because these days they can treat patients with ARVs. After 20 years, they do more and they reach more people than ever before.
[00:48:53] Dr. Naa: Oh today in total, we have almost 50 staff now.
[00:48:57] Aaron: Wow.
[00:48:57] Dr. Naa: Yeah. Between the two, yes. And it's amazing because we started maybe with about six, I think, and now we've, we've grown to be about almost 50. And then we have lots and lots of volunteers, peer educators, case managers, paralegal.
[00:49:14] Narration - Aaron: There is still a risk of donor funding dropping. Much of their support comes from international agencies and that resource is at risk, especially after COVID. But the need to combat HIV stigma and to treat patients continues.
[00:49:29] Dr. Naa: And I think that is where sometimes we are a little bit afraid still because we know donor funding is dwindling. There are so many other areas that need help. Look at COVID. You know, and so we know that gradually it is beginning to drop. So that's one challenge.
The other thing is there is still quite some level of stigma. It's unfortunately, leading to still quite a number of people ended up having full blown AIDS, which I feel with accessibility to ARVs, we shouldn't be seeing that much anymore of AIDS patients. Yeah. But we are!
[00:50:01] Narration - Aaron: If this is inspiring you and you want to jump into help. I asked Dr. Naa how to get involved.
[00:50:07] Dr. Naa: Because we talk about HIV and then we talk about all the things that come with it, people tend to think that if, if you wanted to help us, you have to be a medical person. Absolutely not! It's a whole organization we are running. And, and then, and then of course we have the clinic.
Yes, it is more public health, but there is so much that comes to play. You know, we are always looking for anybody who could help us in marketing. If there's anybody who is a business minded person, they could help us. Because like I said earlier, you know, donor funding is dwindling and we need to find a way to sustain ourselves and hIV is not going to go away tomorrow. You know, it's, it is here to stay. And so we need to keep going on.
We look out for people to help us in the area of publicity, people to help us in the area of communication. How do we use social media, for instance, to, to promote health education? Anybody, you know, anybody. You, you don't necessarily have to have a health background. Once you come here, you will find something that you can do that will contribute immensely to, to the work that is going on.
[00:51:15] Narration - Aaron: We have just a little time left, so I wanted to ask Dr. Naa some deeper questions about death, hope, and how to make a difference.
She shared a story with me from years ago when a teenage boy came into the clinic because of an eye infection. It turned out to be cancer, and it also turned out he had AIDS due to an HIV infection he'd carried since birth. The cancer ended up spreading to his jaw, neck and shoulder. Dr. Naa spent years treating him almost daily, cleaning his wounds, until finally he passed away.
Both Dr. Naa and Eddie have seen enough death to cover a dozen lifetimes.
[00:52:00] Aaron: What are some of the lessons you've learned about death that have been surprising to you, or lessons that you, you would want other people to know?
[00:52:08] Dr. Naa: Yeah, that's interesting. The thing is, you know, because I think I have seen so many people die and like you rightly said that, you know, my own family, it has made me think about death. I have actually been holding people's hand when they passed. And then I, I say to myself, I look at them and I'm like "A minute ago you were here now, where are you? What has happened?"
I haven't found the answer. I just don't know what happens when we die. Sometimes I say to myself, I think we just cease to exist. Sometimes I say to myself, "Is that really it?" And I try not to think about it because I say to myself, if I think about it any deeper, I will just drive myself crazy because, you know, the answer wouldn't come to me.
But what I have learned, and I think just because of having witnessed people like going through the process, is that I feel when people finally die, there's peace. That's what I think. Regardless of whatever it is that you were going through, there is peace. And I know it is sad for those of us who lose a loved one, but I think because I feel they are at peace, after we go through the morning process, getting to understand that we will not see this person again here, you know, on earth, we should be satisfied that.
They are at peace. That that's how I, that's how I feel it, you know? And that's what keeps me going.
[00:53:32] Aaron: What brings you joy when the work is especially hard? What is it that helps you find joy and happiness in spite of the hard things?
[00:53:39] Dr. Naa: I, I really believe just knowing that I have been able to be a part of making someone's life meaningful. I think that is really what keeps me going and in the past, especially when we didn't have lots and lots of like easy access to treatment, and people were really suffering, and families would give up on people. But you go to the extreme, even though, you know, you don't have the power to, to make somebody well. You feel you have to do what is in your power, you know, to, to be able to contribute.
And then you, you are able eventually to save some and then you get the feedback from them. "Oh, Dr. Naa, we thank you so much. We know we can't do much for you, but your reward is, your reward is in heaven." That's what they always tell me, you know, and then, and I'm like, "Well, well, thank you, you know, thank you."
And I'm just so glad that I've been able to make somebody have a meaningful life. And even when people have lost loved ones that were in my care, but then they come back and say, "Doctor Naa, we just wanna thank you and your team. We saw how much you did for them. We appreciate you so much." That alone, just the appreciation that they know you did what you can.
You can't perform miracles, but you go to the extreme to do what it is that you can to help someone. I think that is what really gives me motivation to carry on. Because there's always hope! And so don't let that hope slip away. Do what you can to keep the hope. Even if somebody dies, again they, they are at peace. The loved ones that are left behind appreciate the fact that, you know, you did all you could to help.
I think that is really what keeps not just me, but my whole staff, going
[00:55:20] Aaron: A lot of my listeners are people who want to make a difference in the world in whatever ways that they're, they're trying to do that.
[00:55:26] Dr. Naa: Yes.
[00:55:26] Aaron: What advice do you have for someone with ambition to tackle the world's big problems?
[00:55:32] Dr. Naa: Oh, well, I think, you know, the world is a very hard place and thankfully we have good people.
But despite that, your goodness will always have challenges. And I think you shouldn't let these challenges sit in your way. I think every little contribution a good person makes in this world, it counts toward something. And we all bring our little goodness. And that is what makes most part of the world, even though it's challenging, still have quite a level of goodness.
So I will just say, if you have anything to do, don't think it is too small. Every small bit adds up in whatever way. So please go ahead and do it. And if you face challenges, let the challenges be the ones that will even make you stronger. Get up and rather move on with it, and you will make a difference.
[00:56:22] Narration - Aaron: I think by now you understand why I started by telling you about that amazing waterfall. That unstoppable, invigorating force from her birthplace is the best image I can think of to describe Dr. Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton.
I want to share with you an excerpt from Dr. Naa's book. Near the end. She writes this:
"I will admit that I am mentally, emotionally and physically drained, but I will not say that I am burned out. I continue to hope that things will get better...My clients motivate me with their kindness and optimism...My key to happiness is to appreciate what you have now and to not worry about what you do not. Have material items are not what make one happy...It has been a privilege to work in the field of HIV and Ghana, and I am extremely grateful for the person I have become through this work."
I hope you've been inspired like I have by knowing Dr. Naa and Eddie. I'm so deeply grateful that she took the time for this interview. Their story is one that I want the whole world to know. If you want to help them in their work, visit waafweb.org. You can also find a link in the show notes for this episode.
In the next episode, I'll be talking with a person who might have actually made the phone case that you're using right now. His name is Jim Parke and he's the CEO of Otter Products, the global leader in mobile device protection. And while mobile phone cases will come up, the real topic of our conversation is how to build a company with a higher purpose. You're going to be amazed at how the right perspective on business can turn any company into a force for good. Be sure to subscribe in your podcast app of choice. You can hear that, and all of our past and future episodes.
If you enjoy How to Help, please, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us to reach more listeners.
And if you want to stay up to date with a podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas about how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.
Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also edits and mixes our audio.
Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes. And finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.