An Interview With The Fabulous Abena Tannor, A Family Physician Specialist

I am Dr. Abena Tannor, a Family Physician Specialist with a special interest in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. I am Akwapem-born to parents who are disciplinarians and taught us that good things in life are achieved with hard work. My sisters and I were raised to believe we could be anything we wanted to be and that gender was not an excuse for failure. My mum would always wake up at night to pray for us which she still does and I know that has largely contributed to who I am today. I am a proud Wesley Girls’ High School old girl and Jesus Christ is the solid rock on which I stand. Without Him, I am nothing!

Life in medical school was difficult. Seven years of sleepless nights and long hours on campus attending lectures, dissecting dead bodies and learning how to deliver babies in the maternity unit however paid off when I finally graduated in 2008. It was during Medical school that I also met the love of my life.

Internship after medical school was very intensive. It was not easy combining being the lowest in the food chain amongst the doctors and thus having to run around doing everything for the patients including night duties and leaving work very late when on duty. Being a female doctor has also been very challenging. The average patient thinks every female on the hospital ward is a nurse thus ignoring all my effort and hard work to be a doctor. Furthermore, female doctors’ diagnoses and treatment are sometimes questioned by patients who would thus want a second opinion from our male colleagues seen as the ‘real doctors’.

Carrying a pregnancy while working was very stressful, from standing long hours to operate and having contractions in between, to night duties spent in mosquito-infested rooms with its high risk of getting malaria which could be deadly in pregnancy. Then came the issue of maternity leave where I had to leave my 3-month old baby to return to work. To practice what I preached – exclusive breast feeding, I started expressing breast milk into labelled food containers and storing in the freezer for about a month before resuming work. I would then carry my breast pump to work, lock myself in the doctors’ room for about 15 minutes during work to express breastmilk which I kept in a fridge or my bag depending on my closing time, as expressed breastmilk can stay outside the fridge/freezer for a maximum period of 4 hours. It has not been easy. God’s grace however was and still has been more than sufficient for me. I also have a very supportive husband and family.

Post Graduate Studies…
My mum’s boldness inspired me to love challenges and to always try new things. As such after medical school, I didn’t want to go through the already known specialties eg. Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Surgery etc. I saw how some persons with disabilities in our part of the world begged on the streets while majority of those in the developed world had access to good Rehabilitation services. I then knew that I wanted to become a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialist, to help patients with disabilities achieve their highest level of function, independence and quality of life.

Ghana for a long time has only known physiotherapy as the only form of rehabilitation. There are however other specialties like Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Rehabilitation Nursing, Occupational therapy, Speech and Language therapy, Orthotics and Prosthetics, etc. as part of the rehabilitation team. I wanted to do more for our patients with disabilities, bringing all these professions together to manage the patient as research shows that this approach leads to better outcomes for the patient. My passion led me to do a masters’ program in Rehabilitation outside the country after my internship. I had a baby during that period, attending lectures 4 days after delivery as I did not want my career to interfere with childbirth or vice versa.

I returned to specialize in Family Medicine because I wanted to be equipped with the skills to help me treat patients with disability and the family as a whole. Without family involvement, little progress is attained. When I was going to write my Family Medicine specialist exam, I was then a breastfeeding mother with three children whose husband had travelled. That was a very difficult period. I spent a month in Accra with the children and my mother journeying almost 2 hours from where we stayed to Korle-bu every day for lectures and back another 2 hours to breastfeed and help care for the children. I passed the exams and was informed I had the highest grade in my membership examination. This was just by the grace of my God.

I then started the first locally-led multidisciplinary Rehabilitation Medicine service in Ghana at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital with a great team of like-minded health professionals who also shared the passion to help persons with disabilities. There were challenges with opposition being the major one as is normal with change but through them all, God made me stronger and bolder. He put me in the limelight both locally and internationally. I made some mistakes but also learnt great lessons from my pastor and senior colleagues. The amazing thing was that as the challenges increased, my passion increased and God also opened bigger and better doors for me.

Opportunities I never dreamed of became available and above all, He gave me a wonderful rehabilitation team and family who kept praying and encouraging me. Through the work I am doing, I have received awards, presented papers at local and international conferences and given the opportunity to represent low to middle income countries on the Cochrane Rehabilitation Advisory Board.

I still face challenges but the words “God bless you, doctor” uttered by my patients after consultations and the smile on a patient’s face knowing there is hope, keeps me going and gives me fulfilment.

How I give back…
My Rehabilitation team has recently established an NGO named Step Out Foundation, aimed at increasing awareness on medical conditions that can lead to disability, advocacy, improving rehabilitation medicine services in Ghana and developing affordable assistive devices for persons with disabilities.
As a Family Physician, I often see married couples who have sexually related marriage problems but find it difficult discussing it with a third party because of our culture. I have studied more on managing such issues and also partnered with the Marriage Auditing Associates, an NGO that seeks to educate and counsel married couples on sexual and health related marital issues. Our goal is to help reduce the increasing spate of divorce in our society. We meet with and mentor a group of couples (Winning Couples) once every month in Kumasi. All couples are welcome to join us at our next meeting.

My advice…
Seek to please God not men! When you have an idea or a passion, pray earnestly to God about it, discuss it with experts in the field, be convinced in your heart that, that is His best plan for your life, then go for it. Work very hard and team up with like-minded individuals. There would obviously be challenges but know that you have to fight for what you believe in. Be bold and speak out and when you get to your room, go on your knees – worship God, pray and then be still and let God fight for you.

If you are married, pray for your husband daily because having a good, loving and supportive husband like mine takes away a chunk of the stress. Husbands, support your wives to achieve their goals because you will rise by lifting them up.

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