The first time Dr. Mike Davis ’08 went to Liberia, he figured it would be a good opportunity to enjoy traveling and provide medical care. What he didn’t foresee was that he’d fall in love with the landscape and the people of the West African nation so much that he would jump-start the respiratory therapy profession there.
“The people are wonderful,” said Mike, a respiratory therapist with a biomedical science degree from University of Lynchburg. “The country is beautiful and my specific type of work was in need there. There was a need for my field and the thing I’m passionate about, so it was pretty easy to get involved.”
To back up a little, respiratory care as a profession is almost unheard of in lower-income countries like Liberia. It’s not incredibly common in more prosperous nations either. “It’s largely a luxury of the developed world,” Mike said. “Only about 30 countries in the world have identified respiratory care as a profession. None, before Liberia, were lower-income nations.”
Consequently, respiratory failure is the leading cause of death in Liberia, where, according to Mike, “pneumonia is common,” a third of the population has malaria, and “respiratory [failure] is the cause of over 90 percent of infant deaths.”
On his first trip to Liberia in January 2011, Mike helped start a clinic in an all-girls school and worked in a de-worming program for orphans. Seeing the need for respiratory care, he knew he wanted to go back. He postponed a new job and PhD program so he could return to Liberia in August 2011.
Exactly what he was going to do once he got there was a little up in the air. “I didn’t really have a focused project,” Mike said. “I went over there alone and thought, at the least, I’d show up and work at a hospital, and figured I’d just look for ways I could help.”
Mike worked at various hospitals, eventually landing at Liberia’s national hospital, John F. Kennedy Medical Center, in the capital of Monrovia. He thought he was probably the only respiratory therapist in the country until he finally met Joseph Moore, a Liberian who had worked in respiratory therapy in the United States. Joseph had returned to Liberia to help build up its medical infrastructure after devastating Civil Wars. “We hit it off from the start,” Mike said.
Things moved quickly from that point. Mike started his job at Virginia Commonwealth University (where he later earned a PhD) in January of 2012. In July of that year he and Joseph opened the Liberia Respiratory Health Care Institute, a school that trains respiratory therapists. The first class of nine students graduated in the fall of 2015. Already, they’ve made a difference. The second class will graduate soon.
“We’ve already seen a significant decrease in infant mortality at the two facilities at which our graduates work,” Mike said. “Our next step is to implement our graduates at the national tuberculosis treatment centers, where we think they’ll have a pretty big impact.”
Mike, who is currently an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Virginia at VCU, also founded Partner Liberia with best friend and researcher Scott Dwyer. The nonprofit is committed to advancing respiratory therapy, eradication of parasitic worms, and green energy solutions in Liberia.
Mike hopes to eventually involve Lynchburg students in his work in Liberia.
“I definitely intend to try to involve students with his,” he said, “and LC is a place with which I would like to do that, to make this an educational opportunity for students who want to experience work internationally, especially with the underserved.
“That’s part of our goal: to let others realize their interest in this work and give [them] an opportunity to make a difference.”
Asked about how his experience at Lynchburg prepared him for all of this, Mike credits the College with helping him learn how to keep all the balls in the air, so to speak. When Mike came to LC, he was working full-time as a respiratory therapist, something that could make scheduling classes — sometime even attending them — difficult.
“LC always encouraged me, even in my studies, to stay in the workforce,” he said. “I worked full time as a respiratory care practitioner while I was a student, and that didn’t always work with my class schedule. They allowed me to work around that.”
That prepared him to keep up while he was a full-time PhD student and working on the Liberia project at the same time. “Learning how to balance that occurred during my time at LC.”