Class of 2020: Former combat medic and VCU nursing student prepares for the front lines of health care in the ICU

In a life that has taken him everywhere, Sgt. Henneh Adjei, a father of one and graduating VCU student, is ready to be where he’s needed most — home.

Sgt. Henneh Adjei.
Henneh Adjei eventually wants to become a nurse anesthetist and plans to apply to work at a VA Hospital after graduation to help his fellow veterans. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Sgt. Henneh Adjei’s call to serve began about 10 years ago.

On Dec. 24, 2010, Adjei and a friend were out riding motorbikes in the U.K. when his friend crashed and was fatally injured. It’s a moment Adjei has replayed over and over throughout the years.

“I called the ambulance, but they didn’t get there in time,” Adjei said. “Knowing what I know now, I could have saved his life, but I couldn’t. It was something that I dedicated myself to — to be able to know how to save lives.”

Now a graduating student in the Accelerated B.S. in Nursing program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, Adjei has devoted his life to making a difference in life-or-death situations and is confident his future career in nursing will further this work.

“I always have my eye on the goal,” he said, “and the process is of little importance.”

Adjei grew up in Kumasi, Ghana, and London, England, and after finishing his undergraduate degree in Ghana in 2012, he came to the U.S., where he didn’t know anyone. He was working in North Carolina when he had a health emergency of his own.

“My kidneys shut down, and I was hospitalized,” Adjei said. “I was on dialysis for like two months. I couldn’t walk, and I almost died.”

When he recovered, he knew it was time to pursue his longtime dream. He enlisted in the Army in November 2015 and became a combat medic, a career where he developed skills he said his friend would be proud of.

Deployments took him to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, which was dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Adjei and his fellow soldiers saw the devastation the natural disaster had wreaked on the island and provided aid to people stranded in their communities.

“During the day, you could go through a roller coaster of emotions,” Adjei said. “You would go to a community that has been cut off from power, water, everything. Most of the roads were cut off so we would most of the time use helicopters to fly to the communities to give out water and food. It would be sad to see the destruction … but then you’d feel this hope and joy like when you’d see their faces brighten up when they’d see the water and supplies.”

His time as a combat medic made him a jack-of-all-trades when it came to medicine.

“There’s [few] restrictions on what you can do being a combat medic in the Army because, a lot of the time, you’re the only medical personnel so they train you to do everything you have to do to be able to save lives,” Adjei said.

Deployments would keep him away from his home in Newport News — and his wife, Alex, who is in the Air Force — for months at a time. During his last deployment, Adjei’s son Damien, now 2, was born, and Adjei didn’t get to meet him until he was 6 months old. Adjei realized it was time to find a career closer to home to so he could be around for the milestones in Damien’s life.

There’s [few] restrictions on what you can do being a combat medic in the Army because, a lot of the time, you’re the only medical personnel so they train you to do everything you have to do to be able to save lives.

While deployed on a ship somewhere between Japan and Australia, Adjei applied to VCU School of Nursing. As the ship was on its way back, he got his acceptance into the Accelerated B.S. in Nursing program.

During his first six months of studies, Adjei was still on active duty, attending class three days a week. On days he wasn’t in class, he was working at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, often called Fort Eustis, in Newport News near his home. Last November, he retired from active duty and transitioned to the Army Reserves.

In his time at the School of Nursing, Adjei has received several scholarships, including the Emerging Nurse Leaders Scholarship, the Joanne and William Conway Nursing Scholarship, the Kristin Filler Nursing Leadership Scholarship, the Mildred A. Mason Memorial Scholarship and the VCU School of Nursing 2005 Accelerated Class of Nursing Scholarship.

He has also managed a bit of a learning curve, though his was a bit different from what some of his peers might have faced.

When caring for patients in nursing school, Adjei said, “it took me a while to go from thinking of the patient as a whole — having to do everything for them — to thinking of the patient as just a nurse and [reminding myself] there are other specialties that do other stuff for the patient. You do your part, and let the other person come in and do theirs.”

“It took a while, but I got the feel of it,” he said.

While earning his degree, Adjei was often commuting 65 miles each way to Richmond to take classes. In the past eight months while taking more classes remotely, Adjei has been able to watch Damien grow, something for which he has been grateful, he said. Adjei expects his next steps — he plans to work in a hospital intensive care unit — will keep him much closer to home than he was two years ago.

However, graduation likely will not be the last time Adjei travels that 65-mile stretch. He intends to pursue another career goal: becoming a nurse anesthetist. He has VCU’s top-ranked nurse anesthesia program in his sights when he applies to programs down the line.

Adjei said the calming effects of nurse anesthetists’ work in critical situations — and the office hours that might allow him to pick Damien up from school — are what draw him to the field.

“Anesthesia has always been a very interesting specialty to me, stemming from that crash,” Adjei said. “I saw that the first thing they did was try to get him out of pain, so I was always interested in the medication that takes the pain away.”

Sgt. Henneh Adjei seated in a chair.
Adjei on campus earlier this semester. He will graduate in December with a degree in nursing. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

As Adjei prepares to graduate from VCU in December, he’ll carry the lessons of nursing school and the military into his future career in health care — a career he hopes will include working at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

“If the military has given me this opportunity and privilege and I took advantage of it to be able to go to nursing school, I should be able to give back to that veteran community,” Adjei said. “I think I would do a better job of treating them because I would see myself in them. Ultimately, I [want to] be working at the VA.”

Not only does he hope to serve his fellow veterans in health care, he hopes his journey will serve as a guide to other military members who might be uncertain about pursuing a career outside the military.

“I remember, I came into this country with $327.89 to my name,” Adjei said. “If you’re willing to work hard in America, you can always be what you want to be. For the other combat medics in the military that might read this, and might be thinking of getting out of the military or going back to school, or the veterans that are already out ready to go do something: You can always do it. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it.”

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