Q & A with Sr. Mary Owusu Frimpong, bringing health care to the margins

by Melanie Lidman

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Sr. Mary Owusu Frimpong oversees more than 1,000 members of the medical staffs at hospitals and clinics in the diocese of Obuasi, five hours northwest of the capital of Accra. The St. Louis sister spends her days traveling between four hospitals and five clinics scattered across the diocese, negotiating conflicts, assisting staff and ensuring that patients get the best possible care with dignity.

Global Sisters Report recently visited Obuasi's main hospital, St. Michael's Catholic Hospital – Pramso, to understand more about health care in Ghana and Frimpong's challenges as a female administrator in the patriarchal medical environment.

GSR: Tell me a little bit about your duties.

Frimpong: I'm a general nurse and midwife, and my specialty is in optometry. Eight years ago, I was given the responsibility of being the health director in the diocese of Obuasi. I oversee the hospital and clinics of the diocese. We have five clinics and four hospitals, and we also have one midwifery school that was started six years ago and now has 350 students.

I supervise and monitor the various health facilities. I liaise between our institutions and the church, or our institutions and the Ministry of Health on national and regional levels. I also recruit staff, especially senior staff, such as doctors and pharmacists. My days are filled with a lot of meetings and consultations with the stakeholders. Once in a while, I still go to the clinic to work as an optometry nurse, because I miss working directly with patients.

Why does the hospital concentrate on patients from rural areas?

The St. Louis Sisters started in a small village of Juilly in France [a northeastern suburb of Paris]. The congregation started during the French Revolution, when there were many schools destroyed and many soldiers injured. Right from the beginning, the congregation asked where there is poverty. Where are people not able to take care of themselves?

All of the St. Louis sisters in the Obuasi diocese work in hospitals. We treat all manner of people. We don't segregate [in the hospital] who is poor and who is rich. We are more particular about the downtrodden and the marginalized. We even look for the poor.

The sick were very dear to the heart of Jesus Christ. As Catholics, we follow in his footsteps to continue this healing ministry. We also put a special emphasis on treating people with dignity. We want to give that respect to each patient.

What have you learned from your work as the health director?

I have met a lot of people through my work, and I have made a lot of friends. But because of what I do, I have to make very difficult decisions sometimes. Those decisions can cost a lot, and you can lose a lot of friends. You have to be fair and nice. People need a lot of encouragement. Sometimes one word is all that's needed to change the mind of a staff member that wants to leave the institution.

It's important to be an efficient leader. If you're not careful, people will depend on you for making all of their decisions. You need to be physically strong to do this work because it involves a lot of travel. So you need strength, especially as a woman. I also realized that, due to the fact that I'm a woman doing this job, I made a lot of enemies. Maybe they're not enemies exactly, but some people are not comfortable seeing a woman in this job.

What is it like to be a female in this leadership position? Is it always a sister in this position?

No. Before me, there was a male medical doctor who was the director, and then he retired. I have had a lot of challenges from some men who think that they should be here instead of me. If those men are under you, they can oppose many of the things you do and say. Some supervisors have a problem with the fact that I'm a woman. You can find people who think you shouldn't have that position because you're not qualified. I have a master's degree in governance and leadership from GIMPA [the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration] in Accra. So it's not really about me being qualified or not qualified. They're just not comfortable with a woman in this job.

We met while celebrating a special Mass for World Day of the Sick in a rural clinic in a village called Hia. Why is it important to have a special Mass for the sick?

The World Day of the Sick celebration is for the patients. We do that to show that, apart from the fact that we take care of them, they also mean a lot to us because they are the reason why we have the hospital. We don't pray for them to get sick, but we hope when they are sick they can depend on our hospital. We value and cherish our patients.

The World Day of the Sick is a chance for us to pray with them and encourage them. But it's also a day where we celebrate the staff. We see the good work that they do, and we tap them on the shoulder to say that they have done well. We support them to keep saving souls. We gave some awards to the staff. A lot more could have deserved honors, but we selected only a few.

Before I took over, every year, they did the Mass here at this hospital [the main hospital of the diocese]. But I wanted to rotate it, to appreciate each community that has a clinic. It makes them feel good about themselves, that people are concerned about them. When we go all the way to these rural villages, it boosts their morale. It also lets the staff know about other places that need their support. One of my biggest challenges is that it's hard to get staff to go to rural places. But when we're there for this celebration, it gives them an idea of where the place is, so they can make an informed decision. Also, they know that they'll get the support of the bishops and the health staff even if they're in an isolated rural village.

You must see a lot of suffering during your work. How do you maintain a positive outlook?

I do my prayers, and I go away for retreat from time to time. Also, I started a choir for the staff and the community. They practice every Monday, and if I'm around, I join them. The choir is one of the ways I release tension. I sing out my worries.

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]