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GVSU technology saves lives in Malawi

Grand Valley State University students are making a difference in the Republic of Malawi, Africa, by creating a midwife application to assist in birthing, as well as a solar-powered, portable, backup medical system for when power goes out in the clinics.

The midwife app gives digital access to the book “A Midwife’s Guide” written by Mary Sommers, a certified professional midwife and the cousin of Star Swift, an associate professor of management at GVSU.

“Originally we were going to just help my relatives put the book up on a web site,” Swift said. “Folks from both Steelcase and Google told us it would be of more use in third world countries if we made an app. A lot of people in Malawi have cell phones. They don’t have computers and they don’t have fresh water, but they have cell phones.”

The goal is to increase survival rates during deliveries.

“It will help the birth rates by decreasing deaths during birth,” said Olvi Tole from the GVSU web team. “Medical staff is very small in these countries and the people that give birth sometimes do not have all the qualifications or know what to do when something goes wrong during the process. This app targets to help in that direction by assisting the birth process step by step.”

Tole became involved in the project when Swift was discussing her cousin with the web team. He told Swift that he knew how to write a mobile app, and with his direction, “Team Web GVSU” worked all Christmas break to complete the app, which is still in its early phases of development. “Team Web” was the brainchild of Swift and is comprised of several students.

“We live in the era of technology and this group uses technology to make the world a better place,” Tole said.

At the moment, the app contains text and pictures, as well as a simple-to-use interface that guides the user step-by-step. Audio and cross-device support is also planned to be added in the future, and the app’s usage will be tracked to identify areas of high need.

The app hasn’t been tested or deployed yet, but Tole expects that to happen soon. Afterward, it will undergo final revisions by Sommers and then be added to the Google Play Store for free download. Steelcase may also help in the effort by supplying devices if a need arises.

Meanwhile, another group of GVSU students, this time with engineering backgrounds, has been working on a solar-powered system that kicks on when a hospital loses power in the middle of a surgery. The system is currently being used for a rural hospital in Malawi and was built by three graduate students in the 600-level course on Optoelectronic Devices and Photovoltaic Systems.

Heidi Jiao, the professor teaching the class, began planning the project when she learned that Swift was looking for help with a solar-energy system to aid her cousin Martha Sommers, a primary care physician who has been working in Malawi for over 15 years.

“Martha has 120,000 patients and she is the only physician,” Swift said.

Jiao said the hospital loses power often and, unlike American hospitals, doesn’t have emergency back-up systems.

“Sometimes a patient can be lost, and it’s devastating,” she said in a press release to GVSU’s News and Information Services.

The system is able to provide power for two full days and is equipped with a battery backup. It includes emergency lights, a surgery suction system and two outlets that can charge tablets and phones. The suction system is used to remove mucus from the airways of newborns.

The specifications for the system were completed in mid-September, and then the actual construction began. The students stayed in close contact with Sommers as they worked on the design and were able to find photovoltaic parts on the Internet. The prototype was built and tested in two months, and the finished system weighs 85 pounds without the solar panels.

Gorby and the rest of the team will be training Sommers how to set up and use the system, which is scheduled to be taken to Malawi within a year.
ephillips@lanthorn.com



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