Every day around the world, about 800 women die giving birth to their babies. In the United States, we may not realize how common death during childbirth is, as about 650 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications.

But Dr. Medge Owen, director of global health at Novant Health, realized maternal death was still a huge issue around the world. A trip to Turkey with her husband in 1994 opened her eyes to the antiquated level of anesthesia care for women, resulting in a high infant and maternal mortality rate. This new awareness inspired Owen to change her career path to labor and delivery anesthesia.

“I grew up in Kansas and always dreamed of going to Africa someday,” Owen said. “When I traveled to Turkey, I thought to myself, ‘Someone has to do something and champion this.’ So I guess that someone was me.”

In 2001, she started a nonprofit organization, Kybele , which sends volunteer doctors and nurses abroad to improve health care for women. Kybele’s first team went to Turkey in 2004. The team was composed of eight anesthesiologists from four countries, and the goal was to teach spinal anesthesia to medical professionals in Turkey. After that, they went to Croatia, Georgia and Armenia.

Today, more than 540 participants from 11 countries and 70 medical facilities have been part of the program. The teams are made up of obstetricians, gynecologists, anesthesiologists, nurses and neonatal nurses, and they address local issues determined by the places they are visiting.

One team specifically visited Ghana, which had a high mortality rate for mothers and babies. There was a lack of urgency, and medical care was not provided until the situation was critical. And once the situation is critical, it’s usually too late, explained Dr. Owen.

During one three-week visit, there were seven mother deaths related to deliveries. Typically in the United States, a hospital would go years without a mother dying. After the team’s visit to Ghana, the death rate improved 70 percent following the training. Owen estimated 300 maternal lives were saved following one training session.

Finding ways to help

In April, Owen took a few employees from Novant Health back to Ghana to follow up on the use of bubble continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), similar to those used for sleep apnea but specifically for infants.

Corey Seidel, nurse practitioner with neonatology at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center , was one of the participants who went with Owen.

“We had a few goals on this trip,” Seidel said. “One was to check on the use of bubble CPAPs with hopes the nurses there were able to decrease the infant mortality rate. Another was to see what the nurses needed in the NICU and how they were doing. And lastly, we wanted to work on the control of infections, one of the biggest things babies are dying from.”

Seidel said there had been an increase in survival for babies with the use of bubble CPAPs. The local nurses have also done much better with consistent hand-washing.

She described one of the biggest challenges for NICU nurses in Ghana as lack of staff.

“The first day we were there, there were 42 babies and four nurses,” Seidel said. “In the United States, if we had 42 babies, one nurse would be assigned to no more than four.”

A lot of the good equipment has been donated, but when it breaks down, there’s no one to fix it. On this trip, Seidel mentioned Kybele was able to donate a refrigerator to store breast milk and a washing machine for towels used in the NICU. They also took suitcases full of diapers in a variety of sizes. She noted the nurses were ecstatic for the variety, as they normally have one diaper size for all babies.

Seidel mentioned the importance of going to third world countries, especially as a nurse practitioner. “It’s eye-opening to see what we take for granted. If you can save a life by introducing a new technique or open someone’s eyes on the importance of hand-washing, you’ve made a difference,” she said.

Last September, Novant Health began contributing $15,000 a year to help fund travel expenses for medical personnel going on missions. Also provided are scholarships for the nurses to travel to Ghana to assist in education.

The impact

Since Kybele’s inception, the program has continued to grow. The team is very close with Ghana politicians, and the government supports them at the highest level. “We are treated the same as President Obama when we visit,” Owen said.

Close relationships like that are what has helped Kybele succeed. Collaboration is key, Owen said. With networking, teams from different countries, different hospitals and different backgrounds come together for the cause of improving health care for women.

“We provide resources and training to address issues the locals feel are most pertinent,” Owen said. “We don’t come in with an agenda.”

The training is very hands-on; Kybele doctors show local doctors how to improve medical care for women’s issues.

“Projects seem to find me now,” Owen said. “We even took a group of American schoolchildren to help develop a local Ghana school and build a computer lab. We donated the computers, and two years later, it was still going strong. It’s an eye-opening experience for the kids. It’s one thing to look at impoverished areas, but to see it first-hand made a huge impression on the children. Hopefully, they will carry that inspiration.”