By Skyler Jennings
SAN MARCOS, TX – Texas State University clinical associate professor Sharon Armstead took respiratory therapy students, knowledge and donations to Guyana in January 2018 on a study abroad program.
Armstead, the director of clinical education in the respiratory department at Texas State, was born in Guyana. She lived there off and on until she was about 15 years old when her family moved to Canada permanently. She did not return to Guyana until September 2015 on a medical mission trip with Bridges Global Medical Missions.
It was on her second mission trip there, in May 2016, that she decided to create the study abroad program; it was the respiratory department’s first independent study abroad program. She said she saw an issue with respiratory care in Guyana and knew she needed to bring students because one respiratory therapist, herself, wasn’t going to be enough.
“I’ve gone to Guyana. They don’t have [respiratory therapists],” said Armstead. “I saw the need for respiratory care, especially in Guyana, because when I worked in the [emergency room] I’d see many patients come in and they’d say they have wheezing, but they would never call it asthma.”
The reason, Armstead said, is because the country doesn’t have the tools necessary to diagnose it on a large scale. She said that Georgetown Public Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana, has an asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease clinic, but that it only has two spirometers. Spirometers are an instrument used to measure the capacity of the lungs.
When she received a $11,530 grant from the CHEST Foundation, Armstead knew she wanted to use it to help provide the country with the tools to test for asthma and COPD nationwide.
“For them to go out in the field…and try and do diagnoses, they would have to take their equipment out of the hospital,” said Armstead. “We were able to purchase two [mobile] spirometry units, so that now let’s say they want to go out into the interior of Guyana, they could take one of those mobile units with them and do spirometry testing.”
Her team of five respiratory therapy students from Texas State University left Jan. 2, 2018 for Guyana. Also on the team was a former student, who is now a registered respiratory therapist, to act as her assistant.
The students worked in two hospitals while in Guyana: Georgetown Public Hospital and Linden Hospital Complex. They worked in the intensive care unit checking ventilators, doing assessments and giving respiratory therapy education to nurses. They also worked in the emergency room.
“They participated in multidisciplinary rounds. They did oral care. They kind of did some graphic analysis on the ventilators,” said Armstead. “We basically did what we would do here (in the United States.)”
Claudette Heyliger-Thomas, the medical director for Bridges Global Medical Missions and a pediatrician in Atlanta, said she knows how important respiratory therapy is in a hospital and agrees with Armstead’s mission to bring it to Guyana.
“When I have to go for a regular delivery, I am always concerned that something unusual is going to happen. When I see a respiratory therapist present, boy my blood pressure goes down and my heart rate goes down,” said Heyliger-Thomas. “If that baby decides to turn colors, I know there’s somebody there that’s going to intubate. If the mother needs care, the respiratory therapist is there.”
Heyliger-Thomas said she’s known Armstead for about 40 years. They met through Heyliger-Thomas’ husband, who went to elementary school with Armstead in Guyana. She said she admires Armstead’s passion for respiratory therapy.
“I like Sharon because she cares. She truly, truly cares,” said Heyliger-Thomas. “If it means that she’s going to spend 24/7 just to make sure an issue that she sees is taken care of, she’s going to do it. She’s got what I call ‘Stick to It-ness.’”
Xiomara Ojeda, one of the students who went to Guyana with Armstead, shared a similar sentiment. Ojeda has known Armstead for two years and said she loves learning from her.
“She just has a lot of passion for what she does, and it’s contagious,” said Ojeda. “She loves helping people and she’s really good at it. You want to learn from her because she just knows so much and she just loves it.”
Texas State University lecturer Holly Wise brought the Texas State Global News Team, comprised of five mass communication students, to document Armstead and her students’ work in Guyana. The two first met in 2017 on a similar study abroad program to Nicaragua. Wise said Armstead shared her vision to bring the program to Guyana.
“She is consistent with her goals, and she’s very stubborn and relentless in bringing those goals to life,” said Wise. “I really respect that and admire that a lot.”
Wise, who knows how much Guyana means to Armstead, said seeing her in Guyana after a year and a half of talking about it was a gift. She said a special moment was seeing Armstead speak to students at Mackenzie High School, where Armstead’s dad used to be the principal.
“That was very emotional because I was up on stage, and I thought, ‘I left here as a student. Now I’m back, as a professor, with my own students.’ I just couldn’t place it,” Armstead said.
She said she called her parents, who still live in Canada, while she was in Guyana to tell them about the trip.
“What’s emotional is, every time I call them, you can hear the regret that they can’t come home because of health,” said Armstead. “[Daddy] knew I was going to be in Guyana that weekend, and he was waiting by the phone with a nurse so he could make sure he got the phone call.”
Armstead, who plans to go back to Guyana in May or June for another mission trip, said, “I make it a point to go back every year.”