Face of Defense: Airman Seeks to Build Generation of Lifesavers
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
Air Force Senior Airman Selina N. Okyere has one goal in her life: to teach the whole nation of Ghana to know basic lifesaving skills.
That's no small undertaking. Ghana, which is about the size of Oregon, has a population of close to 29 million people. But for Okyere, this goal is personal. She was born in Ghana.
"People die in Ghana because the people around them don't know basic first aid," she said. "It's crazy when you hear about someone dying and it was something simple that could have been prevented."
It took joining the New York Army National Guard's 69th Infantry Battalion in 2012 and taking her first combat lifesaver course for Okyere to decide on her life's purpose. The course was an epiphany, she said, as she realized that what she had learned could be taught in Ghana.
"On the battlefield, you don't have doctors or medical professionals following you. We take care of our battle buddies. So why can't we teach someone how to apply pressure or a tourniquet if someone is bleeding or do CPR?"
So after Okyere received her U.S. citizenship, courtesy of her military service, she began working on how she could train the average Ghanaian with those lifesaving skills.
Need for Training
In Ghana, very few people outside the medical field know lifesaving or even basic first aid skills, Okyere said. This includes both police and fire departments, and the military, she added.
"I spoke to the police and firefighters and they said this is the type of education they need to know," she said.
For people living outside a major city in Ghana, she said, the closest clinic or hospital can be an hour and a half away. For those in large cities, traffic can make an ambulance or taxi take 45 minutes to get to a hospital. So in Okyere's hometown of Kumasi -- a city of more 1.7 million people -- a life-threatening injury makes it likely that the person will die before making it to a hospital.
"Your life really depends on bystanders because the most they can do is get you in a car," Okyere said. "It's between you and your god if you survive."
And even if the injured person makes it to a hospital, she said, there are still no guarantees. "I did a survey of the clinics in my area, and some of them don't have any emergency room nurses," she added. "A big clinic near where I lived had only one. You can't expect that person to work a 24-hour shift, or seven days a week."
For Okyere, the solution is simple: Teach people basic lifesaving techniques so they can step in and provide first aid until help arrives. "I believe you don't have to be a health professional to save a person's life," she said.
During her time in the New York National Guard, Okyere started investigating ways to raise money for her plan and decided that she needed to create a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. In 2016, she got Global Life Savers both incorporated and 501 status granted. It was also in 2016 that she transferred to the Air Force Reserve Command's 514th Air Mobility Wing as a crew chief with the 514th Maintenance Squadron. The organization's vision is "Empowered people saving lives," and its mission is advocacy and education, resourcing and skill development.
Okyere's big push is to raise money for training aids, such as CPR mannequins and patient simulators, as well as first aid kits for every school. "I want to start in elementary schools, teaching children basic life-saving techniques -- I want to build a generation of lifesavers," she said.
To accomplish that, she is taking her message to the Ghanaian government. On Sept. 30, 2016, Okyere spoke with Nana Akufo-Addo while he was campaigning for the Ghanaian presidency. Her meeting with him paved the way to a meeting with cabinet members.
"I spoke to the minister of communications," she said. "He was very interested."
Okyere is following up with another meeting with Akufo-Addo during a training mission to Ghana next month. "I am making plans on meeting with the president and some ministers on this trip," she said.
Okyere's long-term goals include getting supplies, beds and other basic hospital supplies. She has also put her own money toward realizing her dream, purchasing six blocks of land in Kumasi.
"It is my dream to create an [emergency medical technician] school to specifically train nurses and other people, because they lack the basic lifesaving training in schools,” she said. Okyere is looking to raise $500,000 to build the school.
Once the school is built, she noted, it will need a staff.
"I'm looking at bringing nurses [to the United States] to get the education so they can go back and teach at the school," she said.
To accomplish this, Okyere is exploring partnering with American medical schools and hospitals and is investigating other partnerships as well.
One of the groups Okyere is talking to is the European Resuscitation Council. The ERC's goals mirror Okyere's in that they look at improvements in science, research, education, and implementation and make those skills available to everyone, she said.
In the meantime, Okyere has assembled a group in Ghana to take those lifesaving skills on the road.
"When I was in Ghana, my brother, who is a nurse, got some people together from his hospital and I gave a CPR and basic lifesaving skills class," she said. "Then we went to churches, schools, and sporting events to teach people about first aid."
The classes last 30 minutes and go over the basics. "Last year, I was in Ghana twice," Okyere said. "This year I was there March through April, and I'm planning on going there in December."
The training is paying off.
In May, Okyere's group had gone to the town of Ejisu Asaman to give a series of classes. Soon after, one of the students used those skills and saved an individual who had a heart attack. In the past, because the village is in a remote part of Ghana, that person would have died. This time, because of the training Okyere's group had given, that individual lived.
"They did the right thing and saved the person's life," Okyere said. With that life saved, she is one step closer to realizing her goal.