AFS-USA Voluneer, Dr. Coleen Cunningham, at an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) in Liberia.

March 3, 2015 – When Dr. Coleen Cunningham isn’t busy being a mother to her five children, an accomplished infectious disease physician, and a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, she maintains a passion for intercultural learning. An AFS study abroad returnee, Dr. Cunningham now pays it forward as a Volunteer Liaison for AFS foreign exchange students studying in the U.S. Since 2011, she has worked to support AFS students from all over the globe, helping them adjust to U.S. culture and learning about their cultures in the process.

Recently, Dr. Cunningham took her passion for global volunteerism to a new level. This past December, she courageously traveled to Liberia for two months to assist with the ongoing Ebola containment efforts and to contribute her expertise as a Pediatric Infectious Diseases Specialist.

The following is a personal account of her remarkable experience:

It was an interesting and challenging trip, but I am incredibly glad I went…

While there, I worked on a study that took donated plasma from Ebola survivors and used it to treat patients currently sick with the disease. We worked out of an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) led by Liberian physician, Dr. Jerry Brown.

“The Liberian healthcare workers are just amazing. During the height of the outbreak, many risked their lives to provide hands-on care to suffering patients, something I would have liked to do myself. Fortunately, though, the dramatic decrease in the number of sick patients by the time I got there meant that my abilities were needed elsewhere. I did a lot of training that contributed to the success of the study, and I assisted with regulatory file and data collection.”

“In general, I observed that people are trying to get back to normal, as incidences of the disease continue to drop. Schools began opening last month, and hospitals that closed down are re-establishing services.”

“The survivors are a particularly interesting group. Many still struggle with stigma and discrimination, and many have residual health problems from the illness. Despite these difficulties, however, many are coming forward to donate plasma for future victims.”

Cultural Understanding’s Role

“Working on this project abroad, and collaborating with Dr. Brown and his team, brought to light the importance of cross-cultural understanding in tackling serious global issues. The Ebola response in Liberia has required people from multiple countries and backgrounds to work with all types of Liberians, from everyday citizens to high government officials.

“While I was there, it was essential for me to work within the existing culture and infrastructure, and to be open to local ways of operating. I found that the more my team worked with an understanding of the local culture, the more effective we were.”

Dr. Cunningham (left) bakes cookies with her AFS host daughter from Japan, 2011.

My experience as an AFS Volunteer and as a host mom of an AFS foreign exchange student definitely helped prepare me for this experience. Through working with AFS, I’ve learned that people everywhere are just people, and that they have way more similarities than they do differences. -Dr. Coleen Cunningham
AFS-USA Volunteer
AFS Returnee – U.S. to Germany 

Dr. Cunningham is Chief of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Pediatric Global Health Divisions at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She also teaches Pediatrics and Pathology at the Duke University School of Medicine, and her clinical research has focused on respiratory viral infections and pediatric HIV prevention and treatment in international settings.

Since returning from Liberia, Dr. Cunningham has been cleared by the U.S. Department of Health to return to her work, social life, and volunteer activities.