Second-year pharmacy student brings lessons back to her hometown in West Africa
By Greg Weatherford
VCU School of Pharmacy
This summer, VCU Pharm.D. student Blessing Tomlah traveled 6,000 miles to offer glucose tests to residents of her former hometown in the West African nation of Cameroon.
The second-year pharmacy student bought blood glucose meters in Richmond — the meters are scarce outside the U.S. — and brought them with her on a long flight across the Atlantic, arriving at last in the small seaside town of Limbe.
After being rebuffed by a local pharmacy that did not want to offer free tests, she worked with a church to provide glucose tests at no cost to anyone who wanted one.
Several people were surprised by high glucose results that indicated they could have untreated diabetes, Tomlah said. “They were scared. I told them to go to a doctor and gave them advice about a good diet.”
Tomlah had lived in Limbe, a community of about 80,000, for years prior to moving to the U.S. in 2015. The glucose checks were a way to share her health-care training with the region, whose residents are mostly subsistence farmers and have little information about health care.
Diabetes is not widely understood in the area, Tomlah said, and many who have it do not know how to manage it. Her own aunt died of diabetes-related complications.
“Growing up in a community with so many medical problems, I lost so many family members and friends from lack of health care,” she said.
Tomlah’s training with Evan Sisson, Pharm.D., during her first semester of pharmacy school gave her the experience and confidence to give the tests and offer advice to the residents.
“What Blessing has done is a fantastic demonstration of the importance of making health care available to underprivileged populations,” Sisson said. “Diabetes is a tremendous problem around the world. Addressing it can dramatically improve lives.”
About 80% of people in Cameroon live in poverty, with 25% of the population in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Since 2016, violent clashes between government forces representing the French-speaking parts of the country and English-speaking separatists have raised concerns about sectarian bloodshed.
On this trip Tomlah brought her daughter, 7, and son, 4, for their first visit to the African nation. The rural, agricultural community was a bit of a shock to the children, who live in Virginia Beach, she said. “At first they did not like it — it was so different from what they were used to,” Tomlah added. “But soon they got used to it.”
The experience also provided an opportunity for Tomlah to show her children how health care can make a difference in people’s lives — a helpful lesson since Tomlah’s studies in Richmond mean she is away from them during the school week.
“I wanted them to see the other side of life, to appreciate what they have,” Tomlah said. “And to see people who are suffering and how we can help.”
Tomlah earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Buea in Cameroon. She traces her interest in pharmacy to her grandmother, who used local herbs to treat people in the area. She enrolled at VCU School of Pharmacy in 2020.
“I was excited — what I learned in my first year of pharmacy school, I could use to help someone,” Tomlah said. “It is my dream to help the underprivileged. Now I see part of my dream coming true.”