Six years ago, Mallory Mitchell, OMS IV, stood with her face pressed against an incubator window, wondering if the tiny infant born three months premature, and weighing only two pounds, would survive. That day, she recalls, was one of the scariest of her life.
The infant was her nephew, Cayden John. “We prayed that he would live, but the truth was, we weren’t sure,” says Mitchell, who is a student at Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine (TUCOM) in California.
Luckily, Cayden did survive. And six years later, he is a happy, healthy kid whose fragile start is undetectable. His amazing recovery is due in large part to the incredible care he received within a U.S. hospital supplied with the resources, staff and training to meet an infant’s immediate postnatal needs, Mitchell says.
That memory is the catalyst behind Mitchell’s passion for helping the infants born in the low-resource area of Shirati, Tanzania, which sits on the northern border of the African nation along the shore of Lake Victoria. As a second-year medical student serving at Shirati Hospital in 2015, she was part of a U.S. team sent to train Shirati’s birth attendants on a new life-saving protocol. Called Helping Babies Breathe (HBB), the protocol was created by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization in an effort to reduce neonatal deaths in low-resource settings.
Helping Babies Breathe teaches the initial steps of neonatal resuscitation to be executed within “The Golden Minute” for babies who struggle to breathe at birth, according to the AAP. Based on an AAP study, HBB neonatal resuscitation techniques helped to reduce neonatal mortality by up to 47% and fresh stillbirths by 24% in Tanzania.
HBB improves neonatal resuscitation skills through hands-on learning and practice using the NeoNatalie, an inflatable simulator.
But the hospital lacked the necessary resources and equipment—including clean, dry baby blankets and bag-valve masks—to administer the protocol.
“This inspired me to create Shirati Babies Project and to return to Shirati with these supplies,” says Mitchell. She came back to the Tanzanian hospital during her third year of medical school. The project seeks donations that will support the purchase of resources and equipment to effectively implement the protocol.
Shirati Babies Project offers several levels of sponsorship, including $10 to sponsor a baby blanket and respiratory supplies for an infant born at Shirati District Hospital, $20 to sponsor a baby blanket for a U.S. baby plus one for a Tanzanian infant, and $80 to sponsor a high-quality stethoscope for a local physician or nurse.
The blankets are gifted with a tag that explains the project and helps raise further awareness of it. There is also an option to sponsor baby blankets as holiday gifts.
Closing the gap
“Health care is a very basic human right that we should all have equal access to, regardless of where we live or where we are born,” Mitchell says. “The current unfortunate reality is that where we live has a huge impact on our lifespan and quality of health care. Infant mortality is very high in low-resource areas of Tanzania.
“Many infants who die there would easily survive if they were born in the United States, and this disparity is unacceptable.”
Mitchell uses social media and her website to raise awareness of the project and to ask for specific help. She is proud of the project’s track record of providing 40 high-quality stethoscopes for birth attendants, 300 baby blankets, infant respiratory supplies, and a fetal heart rate monitor to the hospital’s maternity ward.
While the project supports the infants’ postnatal needs, prenatal care for women and families is also a priority. “We provided prenatal exams and vitamins to nearly 100 women and helped support healthy pregnancies and thoughtful family planning.”
The osteopathic advantage
Osteopathic medicine has proven to be a benefit for Mitchell who was named 2017 Student of the Year at Touro. “The skill of performing thorough physical exams is something I learned in DO school,” Mitchell says. “When I’m working in a hospital without a working EKG machine or access to quick radiology results, I need to rely more on my own history and physical exams as well as critical-thinking skills.”
A vital part of the Shirati Babies Project is to continue the training for local birth attendants in effective interventions for infants who are born struggling to breathe. “This training, coupled with providing the necessary supplies, is my strategy for continuing to improve neonatal outcomes,” Mitchell says.
Despite the support she’s received, the need continues. “I’ll never be able to provide everything that this community needs, but not being able to do everything is no excuse to stand by and do nothing,” Mitchell says.
If you would like to get more involved with the project or receive updates on its progress, visit Mitchell’s website.