This summer, Anna Rietti and Petrina LaFaire traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to research whether noise levels harmed infant health at a local hospital as part of the Radulovacki Global Health Research Fellowship, which helps fund student research.
Tell us about your project. What inspired your work?
For 10 years, students from Northwestern University enrolled in the University of Cape Town’s Global Healthcare Technologies program have been designing devices to improve health care in Western Cape Province. These projects have been done in collaboration with local nurses, doctors, and health care administrators. One area of focus has been infant care, especially in NICUs (neonatal intensive-care units) and Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC). Students have developed concepts for breathing monitors, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and phototherapy; all of which can be used in either the NICU or KMC environment.
This specific project was started at the request of Dr. Lucy Linley, the head neonatologist at the Mowbray Maternity Hospital (MMH). Dr. Linley was concerned that the noise levels in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) were too high, and worried about the potential harm this might pose to the infants.
How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?
Our experience while in Cape Town was definitely different than our expectations. We had tried to prepare so that we could begin research upon arrival, however due to miscommunications we did not have in-country ethics approval when we arrived. Therefore we were unable to accomplish much of what we had wanted to do. However, instead we were able to work with the staff of the hospital to further develop our project, and talk with them about our project and other health concerns of the region.
What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?
After taking global health classes, we heard about shortages in hospitals and people in need. However, my time abroad was the first time that we came face to face with what to us were concepts on paper, but to many is daily life. Health disparities in Cape Town are huge. They run from privately run hospitals with suite-style rooms to community health clinics where patients come before sunrise and wait hours to be treated. There were some constants between the two drastically different health care providers though. The staff, everywhere we went, was dedicated and passionate about helping patients. Staff said the same thing at each location: they lacked sufficient health care workers.
What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?
Our most challenging moment was definitely discovering that we did not have the correct in-country approval. We worked with our mentor, Dr. Linley, as well as other contacts in the Western Cape to try and get expedited approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). Unfortunately, we were unable to get approval during our stay. Anticipating this, we trained a resident intern at the hospital in the use of our sound level meter and research procedure. She is in the process of conducting data recordings and will send the information to us soon. We’re excited it’s finally happening.
Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?
Post-apartheid South Africa is only 20 years old. There are many remnants of the old regime in many of the actions. Race is a big issue and it is very openly discussed. We really tried to gain a deeper understanding of the culture by visiting different historical landmarks, like the District 6 Museum and Robben Island. We also talked with some of our local friends about race issues.
On a lighter note, there were also some dialect aspects that had some funny consequences. They speak British English, where ‘chips’ mean French fries. Once at a restaurant we ordered chips and guacamole. Our waiter seemed confused when we ordered, but placed it and returned soon afterwards with French fries and guacamole.
In terms of our project, one other cultural difference was that nurses are called “sisters” — even male nurses. We noticed generally that when referring to people, even strangers, people would call one another “sister,” “brother,” and “my friend.” It highlighted the community-oriented society that exists.
Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern or after?
Researching abroad has definitely reinforced our desire to continue working to improve health care for all.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?
For students wishing to conduct research abroad, we would tell them to definitely go for it! Take advantage of the opportunity provided to follow your passion in a foreign country. Get to know people who live in the area and try to experience the daily life.