Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Ghana service trip offers student chance to combat maternal mortality

Caroline Kusi '11 helps a TBA with a headlamp.

When Caroline Kusi ’11 agreed to participate in an annual service trip run by Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), she joined more than just a group of healthcare industry workers. Recognizing the burning need for global health initiatives worldwide and the lack of vital health infrastructures in developing countries, she quickly became part of a BD team committed to "helping all people live healthy lives."

The motto, which serves as the company's corporate purpose, certainly helped guide the three-week-long trip to Ghana, which allowed Kusi to work closely on public health initiatives with BD employees and members of Direct Relief International (DRI), a nonprofit, humanitarian organization that provides medical assistance to improve the quality of life for people affected by poverty, disaster, and civil unrest.

Planning for the trip began long before Kusi left the U.S., with a conversation between Matthew Mattern, senior development officer at Lehigh, and Gene Vivino '80, director of strategic planning at BD.

"It all began with Matt and Gene," says Judith Lasker, professor of sociology and anthropology, who worked closely with Kusi to develop and hone her research goals before the trip. "They have been an integral part of the project from the beginning."

Once the relationship was established, Kusi—with the help of Lasker, BD Social Investment staff, and DRI—worked to create a structured set of objectives that would expand on the work Lehigh master's student Sirry Alang had done with BD on a previous trip to Ghana in 2008.

Assessing the impact of training

Kusi's research focused on the issue of maternal mortality in Northern Ghana, where data is difficult to obtain, but the rate is thought to be quite high.

“The Tolon-Kumbungu District in the Northern Region of Ghana is highly underdeveloped and therein lies lack of access to proper and safe healthcare and basic necessities,” Kusi says. “The King's Village Project, in collaboration with Direct Relief International and BD, conducted a needs assessment to identify what supplies and human resources were needed to help make the King's Village Project able to serve the local Ghanaian people so that they can access basic human services.”

For Kusi and the rest of the BD crew, this meant working closely with a group of Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs)—village-based midwives without formal training—in an effort to increase training and awareness of important medical practices. Kusi’s role in the mission involved assessing the impact of BD’s previous training of TBAs and professional midwives and identifying ongoing needs for reducing maternal mortality.

Just as important as training, though, is establishing the infrastructure that allows the TBAs to do their job.

"It's not that the TBAs are unaware of what is needed; in fact they are very experienced in delivering babies," Lasker says. "However, things as simple as hand washing can be extremely difficult when there is a lack of clean running water. What they need are better facilities and transportation."

In addition to the training sessions, then, BD has worked to create a medical technologies laboratory and provided medical supplies to the local hospital.

Gaining a broadened understanding of global health

Kusi, who lived in Ghana until she moved to the U.S. at age six, is currently a double major in Sociology/Social Psychology and Global Studies, with a minor in Health, Medicine, and Society. The trip, she says, helped her connect the different aspects of her Lehigh education by giving her the tools to analyze the relationships between globalization, culture, politics, and health.

“After the trip, I realized that to practice public health and to really make an impact comes from being able to examine and respect the culture or unfamiliar place in which you find yourself,” Kusi says. “You must not only look at the macro level observations, but must consider micro-level interactions that help you learn about a people and their ways; thus working together to empower them to improve health.”

During the training process, Kusi collected demographic information about the TBAs and communities in which they worked. She also conducted focus groups with more than 100 TBAs and professional midwives about the impact of BD’s previous intervention, which she presented to BD’s top leadership in January. In addition to her work on the Ghana trip, Kusi is the founder of the Public Health Coalition at Lehigh, which she started as a sophomore, and is a Bill Gates Millenium Scholar.

In recognition of Lehigh’s participation in the trip, and in honor of Kusi’s dedication and professionalism, BD provided Lehigh with a $10,000 grant, much of which is going toward Lehigh's growing Social Science Data Center to support future projects in the area of global health.

"There are people at Lehigh involved in all kinds of ways," Lasker says of the growing interest in public and international health across all of the colleges. 

For Kusi, the Ghana trip has truly inspired her.

“The trip made me realize how much I wanted to go into global health and the importance of sustainability and cultural sensitivity,” Kusi says. “I made connections with many people on the trip: from pastors to children to local health employees. I was amazed at how much I learned from professionals who broadened my understanding about carrying out a global health project and making a true and genuine impact.”

Story by Elena Gambino

Posted on Tuesday, February 02, 2010

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