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To the Heart of Africa
by John Gagnon
A group of steadfast students traveled to Ghana last summer, on a mission to bring better medical care to that west African nation. The trip was both inspiring and disturbing.
The students tested and demonstrated an infant heartbeat detector that could reduce newborn deaths.
The device quickly recognizes if a newborn's heart is beating. Without this kind of technology, sometimes midwives set aside depressed and nonresponsive babies to die.
On this life-altering journey, the students encountered raw sewage in gutters alongside roads everywhere; wonderfully fresh mangos and plantains; a lack of restrooms and a proliferation of cell phones.
Running water was as scarce as the electric service, which was at best sporadic. So students bathed with a bucket of cold water. "I use more water here just to get it warm," says Brooke Smith, one of four who made the trip.
Ghana, then, meant some spartan ways, but bountiful hearts. "They were so welcoming and warm," Smith says. She recalls one person she met, who said, "‘We're all people. We're all human beings. We all have the same basic needs.'"
Two years ago, Smith and a team of about twelve other students began work on the first prototype of the heartbeat detector; a year later, they had an instrument that was the size of a breadboard. The second generation, which they took to Ghana, is the size of a half-inch-thick credit card. (The third generation is expected to be the size of a band aid.)
The student team is part of the International Business Ventures Enterprise, which is supported by the McAlister Foundation.
In Ghana, Smith and the other students showed their device to physicians, nurses, and midwives to get feedback on how it could be improved.
They came away with many good ideas. Make it flexible instead of rigid, so it conforms better to a baby's small chest. (In general, babies were much smaller than they had anticipated.) Make it rechargeable instead of a throwaway. ("It's going to be used a lot," Smith says. "Many times a day. So we have to be very conscious of the battery life.") Develop documentation and instructions for use and repair. ("It must be simple.")
Smith and her cohorts encountered unabated enthusiasm from the medical people they visited. "They were excited about anything that we can bring them that would make their life easier," Smith says.
She graduated in May 2008 but stayed on campus through July to work on the device and make the Ghana trip.
The students visited the capital city of Accra, as well as the cities of Kumasi and Sunyani, and the small village of Kranka.
They interviewed people about other medical devices they might need. One possibility for yet another project—a small heart monitor affixed to the foot of a baby with a constant digital readout of the heartbeat.
The students were surprised to find that the hospitals in the cities had sophisticated medical practices and equipment. They found what they expected in the village of Kranka: thatch huts, no electricity, no toilets, and a small clinic supported by nurses and midwives. "They were really interested in what we had to offer," Smith says. "They can't wait for us to come back."
Smith has moved on to a PhD program at Cornell University. She will remember Michigan Tech for this experience—she had never anticipated such an opportunity. "I didn't expect to become an ambassador of Michigan Tech and the US," she says. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."
"I really learned a lot," she adds. "The people have nothing, but they're so happy, it's heartbreaking."
She was joined by Samantha Jang-Stewart, Elizabeth Moore, and Nana Manteaw. Manteaw, a senior in psychology, is actually a native of Ghana. His mother is in Accra; his father in Chicago. He was the group's interpreter and guide, and the trip back to his homeland was his first since coming to the US six years ago.
He made all the team's presentations to the various medical personnel. Before he came to America, he couldn't have done that. In Ghana, he grew up with a heavy dose of deference and forbearance, especially with regard to elders. "Young people should be humble," he explains.
He says of life in the US: "What I learned about this culture is to be free. I learned the ability to be bold. It's a good change."
"My goal is to get knowledge and help not just Ghana but other countries," he says. He'd like to help deliver electricity, sewage treatment, clean water, education, and medicine—all to bring to poor countries a better life that is sustainable.
Elizabeth Moore is a junior in biomedical engineering. She has been in the IBV Enterprise for a year and puts everything in perspective. "We're students. We're still learning."
She is "super-involved" on campus. "I've always been a hard worker," she avows. She put her all into the enterprise, which she calls "this awesome experience." She wants to apply her work ethic to medicine. "I really want to end up growing organs."
Samantha Jang-Stewart is a senior in biomedical engineering. Although not on the heart detector team, she has been in the IBV Enterprise for two years and accompanied the group to Ghana.
Like Smith, she never envisioned such an opportunity. " 'Exciting' is a gross understatement," she says. She describes the endeavor as practical and spiritual.
"We want to create our product and bring it to the market. We're inventing, and hopefully someday we'll be selling. It's a humanitarian effort. The goal is to help the most people you can in places that need it."
She wants to be a pediatrician and envisions participating in Doctors Without Borders. "I couldn't live full time over there, but I could dedicate at least a portion of my time. There's no financial reward, but those people truly, truly appreciate what you're doing."
Jang-Stewart says of the trip and the device, "None of us really knew what to expect out there. No matter how much research you do, you can never learn fully about the environment it's going to be used in."
For instance, in Ghana, medical instruments are sanitized with a strong antiseptic and boiling water, so the device has to be waterproof. "We didn't know about that," she says. "So now we'll go back and rethink."
The students also have to iron out some technical difficulties. "It wasn't a finished work by any means," Jang-Stewart says, "but it was very promising."
Overall, she says of her journey to the heart of Africa: "I'm just an ordinary student who has had a life-changing opportunity."