By Leanna Pough
A mother in Moshi, Tanzania, is hemorrhaging while doctors deliver her ashen-faced infant. After failed attempts to stimulate the baby’s breathing, a midwife instructs UNC Charlotte alum Gina Allen Wilson to wrap the newborn in a blanket and set it aside.
“The baby wasn’t crying; it wasn’t breathing. I and the other nurse and the midwife were running around the room trying to intervene to figure out ways we could help, and there were just very limited resources to intervene,” recalled Wilson, a family nurse practitioner.
|Gina Wilson helps newborns survive by teaching midwives.|
For her final clinical rotation to become a family nurse practitioner, she helped deliver babies at a family clinic in Moshi at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. “I was on cloud nine delivering babies. Then (that) delivery went really, really wrong. It was really bad,” Wilson said.
The nursing staff could only provide an IV to hydrate the mother. The team was able to stop the bleeding well enough for her to walk back to her village.
“That experience haunted me … I just kept thinking how in America it’s so different. If that happens, we have blood on hand … There’s a team of experts there to help, and that baby would’ve gone to NICU,” said Wilson, referring to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She didn’t let go of those thoughts.
Wilson earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2010 while on a softball scholarship at the University. She then began working in women’s health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I loved nursing. When I finished at UNC Charlotte, I really felt like I would never go back to school … I was, and still am, so proud to be a nurse,” said Wilson, who grew up in Harrisburg, N.C.
But in working with patients, Wilson found pursuing advanced studies would be beneficial to her career. With the goal of becoming a family nurse practitioner, she enrolled in the Master of Nursing Program at Duke University in 2013.
“That’s what led me to this,” Wilson explained about her work in the East African country of Tanzania. “I was finishing my rotations, and I’d really enjoyed pediatrics. I thought maybe I’d be a pediatric nurse practitioner. Then I had an opportunity to go to Moshi, Tanzania, to do my one of my final clinical residencies. This is where I had the experience that changed my life.”
High Infant Mortality
Wilson learned that a high percentage of babies born in Tanzania die from breathing difficulties at birth, similar to what she experienced at the Moshi clinic. One in every 38 deliveries is classified as a stillbirth in nearby Zanzibar, Tanzania. “The traumatic birth I witnessed led me to start reviewing mortality rates, causes of newborn deaths and efforts being done to reduce those,” Wilson said.
She discovered that babies born in sub-Saharan Africa have a much higher neonatal mortality rate compared to those in the United States. In Tanzania, it’s four times higher. “I found a lot of these deaths are attributed to preventable causes,” she explained. “For example, in America we have bulb-suction devices to remove secretions from a baby’s nose and mouth after delivery. These simple devices are scarce resources in Tanzania.”
She met with a faculty member at Duke about her interest in reducing infant mortality in Tanzania and decided to enter the nursing doctorate program. Her dissertation is about the work.
She became familiar with Helping Babies Breathe (HBB), a newborn resuscitation program developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. She took the training with the goal of taking the program to nurse midwives in Tanzania and training them so they could teach others. Previously, HBB had only been done with a dozen or fewer health professionals who were not necessarily on the front lines of deliveries as nurse midwives are.
|Newly trained midwives are keeping more babies alive in Tanzania.|
Wilson had to obtain government approval for the program and raise $1,800 for supplies before she began her effort. “Some people laughed at me — they said there was no way I would get permission from the government,” she recalled, noting that it took persistence and flexibility to accomplish.
To raise money, she organized events, sent out letters and received substantial support from the church she grew up in, Providence Baptist, which continues to provide money for supplies. Wilson also partnered with ChaRA, a charitable organization in Zanzibar. Together, they work to minimize neonatal mortality and stillborn rates by educating midwives to be master trainers who can instruct other district and village midwives in HBB techniques.
‘Power Not Really Reliable’
Funds purchase Penguin Suction Devices (bulb suctions); bag-mask resuscitators that can be disassembled, cleaned and reused; NeoNatalies, which are babies filled with water used in training simulations; Swahili workbooks; and solar lights. “Power is not really reliable anywhere in the country,” said Wilson, who has made three trips to Tanzania.
After the first one, as part of her master’s program, she returned to teach a Zanzibar class of six master trainers, who have since educated 27 additional midwives on HBB procedures. On her third trip, last September, she followed up with the HBB trainees and did more instruction. She plans to finish her doctorate in May and return again in September 2016.
Wilson hopes the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar, Unguja and Pemba will eventually get the program.
She still thinks about the important role UNC Charlotte has played in her career and the rest of her life. Not only was Wilson a pitcher on the softball team, she met her husband, Ryan Wilson, at UNC Charlotte, where he was a golfer and now works with the nonprofit First Tee. They married in 2011 and live in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where Gina is a family nurse practitioner at a pediatric clinic.
Furthermore, her dad, Bill Allen, works at the University in the Information Technology Services Department, and her mother, Mary Allen, retired from UNC Charlotte’s Materials Management Department. Her siblings, two sisters, also have Niner connections. Shauna Allen Drye worked at UNC Charlotte at one time, and Kelly Allen Clark currently is a doctoral student in special education.
“I think UNC Charlotte is the foundation for my work in Africa,” Wilson noted. “UNC Charlotte taught me how to be a nurse, and the importance of doing this work. I knew I wanted to help people when I came to Charlotte, and nursing was the perfect fit — to be the hands and feet that love and care for people.”
To learn more about her work, see Helping Babies Breathe or Hope Project: Helping Babies Breathe in Africa, both on Facebook.
Leanna Pough, '16, is a communications coordinator in the Office of Public Relations.