For humanitarian, path to far corners of the world began at UHCL

July 5, 2018 | Jim Townsend

Two weeks after they learned new emergency care protocols, medical staffers at the teaching hospital in Gondar, Ethiopia, were put to the ultimate test: save a patient in cardiac arrest. The patient survived. For University of Houston-Clear Lake alumna Roxane Richter, it’s moments such as these that make her life’s choices worthwhile. “Not every day, but on days like this, when we have a great ‘save,’ it makes all the sacrifices of living apart from family, friends and ‘Western life’ comforts worth it.”

Richter is working and teaching at the University of Gondar Hospital on a six-month assignment, where she trains nurses, medical residents, interns and others to use South African-standard triage protocols for emergency medicine, including cardiac resuscitation codes. She is there as part of the Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholars Program, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia. The program’s mission is to strengthen Ethiopian universities’ ability to teach and manage undergraduate and graduate programs and enhance universities’ research capacities.

Forming her foundation

Richter earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from UH-Clear Lake: a bachelor’s in media studies in 1996 and a master’s in cross-cultural studies in 2007. “I think my UHCL graduate degree formed an important foundation for my global health care research and humanitarian aid work,” she said via email. “It allowed me to study the complexities of minority-majority cultures, gender-based violence, social justice, health care disparities, and xenophobia before I had to face those issues firsthand.”

She has faced those issues fearlessly – as a licensed emergency medical technician for the past 20 years and as an American Red Cross Disaster Health Services provider: “I’ve devoted much of my time and effort to improve emergency health care and vision care in developing nations. I’ve traveled to 75 countries and in my opinion, the top three most needed care fields in developing nations seem to be dentistry, emergency and vision care. I don’t like dentistry, so I’ve focused on the latter.”

Taking on global issues

Richter says emergency health care is a relatively new professional field, especially in the developing world. “It’s just so critical – and it is certainly one of the most rewarding ways to help people who have suffered trauma or cardiac arrest.”

In 2014, Richter received a doctorate in global health care from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “My catalyst for studying and teaching emergency medical response and planning in mass casualty incidents and disasters stems from living through many hurricanes in Houston,” she said. “Hurricane Katrina really gave me both personal and professional insight into emergency care in mass disasters.”

She chronicled women’s gender-specific EMS needs during 2005’s Katrina based on her experiences as a first responder in a chapter she wrote titled, “Disparity in Disasters: A Frontline View of Gender-Based Inequities in Emergency Aid and Healthcare,” for the book, “Anthropology at the Frontline of Gender-Based Violence” by Princeton University Press.

She published the book, “Medical Outcasts” based on eight years of research that details difficulties undocumented Mexican women encountered while trying to access emergency medical services in Houston. She compares it with her witness of similar difficulties experienced by Zimbabwean women in Johannesburg. Her research examines constructs of social origins of women’s suffering, disease, and health-care access through variables that included gender inequity, xenophobia and human rights violations, among others.

A ‘defining passion’

“When I’m not globetrotting, I am writing up previously collected research data, compiling new data, or brewing up new research or book ideas to publish,” Richter said. “Writing has and always will be a defining passion of mine.”

Richter said UHCL’s Professor of Literature Craig White was a major influence in her career choices. While working on her graduate degree, she took a cross-listed multicultural literature seminar under White’s instruction. “I loved Craig White,” she said.

“Roxane was a committed reader and compelling writer who, like other Cross-Cultural students, brought a refreshing activism to literary studies,” White said. “I learned of her humanitarian missions in the developing world and read her M.A. thesis on the need for recovery efforts to take women’s and families’ needs into account – which has since become normal even in local disaster scenarios like Hurricane Harvey.

“Roxane’s gracious personality supports her work. As she prepared for a teaching assignment of her own, Roxane met with me to ask how our seminar, she said, encouraged students to discuss difficult subjects comfortably and constructively. Her question was gratifying, and I shared a couple of standard techniques, but she already had the answer.

“Her life expresses itself best through the well-being and expression of others,” White said.

Last year Richter co-authored the account of five years of non-profit medical outreach to 1,714 patients in Gnani, a notorious “condemned witches” village in rural northeastern Ghana. She collaborated with Rice University Professor of Religion Elias Bongmba, who, during her graduate studies, taught a course on African culture at UHCL as a visiting professor. Their resulting book, “Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis: Traditional Ghananian Beliefs and Global Health 2017,” exposes the challenges of separating indigenous beliefs – including witchcraft –  from contemporary interpretations of biological pathogens, structural and gender-based violence and evidence-based medicine.

In 2016-17, Richter spent nine months in Ghana as a Fulbright-Fogarty Postdoctoral Global Health Fellow.

Dedicating herself to the needs of others

Richter is also president and co-founder of World Missions Possible, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing and supporting emergency medical health care in developing nations and rural areas, disaster relief, vision care, nutrition programs, food banks and repairing low-income housing, schools, orphanages and medical facilities.

When she leaves Gondar at the end of July, she’ll go to Kumasi, Ghana for a two-month assignment at another teaching hospital under the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Specialist Program. There she will instruct doctors, emergency nurses and civic first responders in the use of a set of rules and procedures she developed for mass casualty disaster situations. “I created this algorithm for Ghana while I was a Fulbright-Fogarty Global Health Fellow,” she said. “After my grant, I met with the vice president and other top government officials who endorsed my low-cost program for use in low-resource settings, like sub-Saharan Africa.”

The procedures link the trauma-acuity levels of hospitals and clinics and utilize drones to augment on-scene triage and treatment decisions by first responders. 

Making the most of it

Gondar is in the heart of Ethiopia’s Highlands, south of Sudan and north of the modern-day capital of Addis Ababa. For 600 years, Gondar was the capital of the imperial house that ruled Ethiopia from 1270 to 1974 – a dynasty that claimed lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The region is famous for the origin of coffee.

“It’s a rural town that moves by horse carts, donkeys and a lot of noisy Bajaj (an Indian manufacturer of three-wheeled motor carts),” said Richter. “There’s a local saying here that goes, ‘Gondar moves by God and Bajaj.’ We joke that ‘here comes 12 o’clock Fed Ex’ when a band of heavily-laden donkeys careen through the street.”

There’s limited internet in Gondar, where locals live with “no power or water for three to seven days at a time,” she said, adding that every few weeks, she goes to a hotel lobby to check her email.

When she’s not traveling, Richter lives in Whanganui, New Zealand. “My husband and I purchased a home there last year and we love the quiet, rolling green hills,” she said. “It’s astonishingly pristine – and I feel like I must pinch myself sometimes for living in such a picture-perfect spot in the world.

“I am 10 minutes from the beach and 45 minutes from snow skiing, so it’s ridiculously awesome. The only drawback so far is celebrating Christmas in summer. I may never get used to Christmas cards with sandals, beaches, kiwis, and ice cream cones.”

For more on UHCL’s Master of Arts in Cross-Cultural Studies program, visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/degrees/cross-cultural-studies-ma