Emory Report
June 26, 2006
Volume 58, Number 33


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June 26 , 2006
International hero

By eric rangus

Nestled at the front of her desk among the clutter of Maureen Kelley’s third-floor office in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing is a roughly 8-inch-high block of etched glass attached to a wood base.

Upon closer inspection, the etching in the glass reads Atlanta Business Chronicle 2006 Health-Care Hero. The award is angled so that its front points directly at Kelley’s doorway.

In Kelley’s unassuming world, this qualifies as boastful.

“It was a great honor,” said Kelley, clinical associate professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. An internationally recognized educator in nurse midwifery (she also is chair of family and community nursing in the nursing school and previously served as director of Crawford Long’s nurse midwifery service), Kelley has spent more than 20 years on Emory’s faculty. She not only has instituted innovative prenatal-care health programs at Emory, but also assisted organizations in other nations to develop their health care delivery mechanisms.

The Health-Care Hero awards are presented annually by the Atlanta Business Chronicle to recognize outstanding achievements in the field of medicine. Often, award recipients are the behind-the-scenes professionals who rarely make headlines. Kelley received the 2006 award for Allied Health Professional, which honors individuals in ancillary professions such as nursing or physical therapy.

While the Health-Care Hero award has spread Kelley’s name and work outside the Emory campus, her accomplishments have long been known in the nursing school.

The Centering Pregnancy program, which she instituted while at Crawford Long, is a landmark program that provides a group approach to prenatal care by bringing together up to 10 women (and often their partners) for midwife-facilitated sessions where health assessment, education and support are stressed.
And last year, Kelley was named to Independence Chair in Nursing, which is endowed by the Independence Foundation of Philadelphia to build the capacity of nursing to serve vulnerable populations and develop nursing practice and scholarship.

These are just two of the reasons Kelley was nominated for a Health-Care Hero award. The May 25 award ceremony is perhaps akin to the Academy Awards. Winners aren’t announced until the evening the awards are handed out. Before each award is presented, the nominees’ photos are beamed onto a large screen and their bio is read. When all that’s done, an envelope is opened, the recipient named, then said recipient weaves through the crowd, ascends the stage and collects her or his award.

Aside from the dramatic presentation, winning one of the prestigious awards is enough to swell the head of even the most deferential person, but Kelley keeps things in perspective.

“Everyone who is nominated does amazing work—every single person they named in every single category,” said Kelley, who earned her BSN from Creighton University, a master’s in maternal child nursing from the University of California, San Francisco, a midwifery certificate from the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a Ph.D. from the Medical College of Georgia.

Perhaps, but this year it is Kelley’s turn to be recognized—not that her excellent work is anything new. After spending the first part of her career focused on her specialty of nurse midwifery, about six years ago she took an international trip that shifted her focus somewhat and has taken her to destinations ranging from Jamaica to Russia.
On that first trip—to Ethiopia, where Kelley helped train local midwives—she stretched herself in a lot of ways. And it’s that sort of experience she tries to instill in the Emory nursing students with whom she works.
“It’s a transforming experience to put students in a situation with which they are unfamiliar and ask them to think about social justice and health care delivery issues in a different context,” Kelley said. “It’s just an amazingly enriching experience for everybody.”

Each spring, Kelley hosts an alternative spring break where she leads a group of 10 to 15 nursing students who work with a missionary center in Jamaica that cares for physically and mentally handicapped children and adults.

Although Kelley said the brothers run the center in such a “joyful” way that much of the place’s inherent depression (some children as old as 9 are confined to cribs) is softened, the difficult conditions can be challenging for the students.

Kelley has stacks of student journals illustrating this point, and her stories about former students are fascinating.

One student wrote that she was initially scared and uncomfortable, but by the end of the week she wrote that “through this experience, I learned about caring for people—in those moments when you are holding someone’s hand—those are the times that we truly make a difference.”

“Part of the initial reaction is fear,” Kelley said, adding that overcoming that fear, as the student did, is an important learning experience, and there is no reason to be ashamed. “But she was able to look very deeply into herself. That was amazing.”

Honing that ability to look into oneself is a goal Kelley tries to help her students accomplish.

“At first you’re just shocked at what’s going on, then you are angry,” Kelley said, describing the emotional path her students take while staffing the clinic. “Students ask, ‘How can this be happening to people who are human beings?’”

“Then they come to an understanding about it during the week, and that understanding continues after they leave. One student wrote ‘the brothers treated people by treating their spirit and providing love and support. They showed us that we all possess these very powerful tools and that these tools can have a huge impact on the human spirit and the healing process.’ These students are different people after having this experience and it’s a privilege supporting them through it,” she said.

Another of Kelley’s international efforts is the Balashikha Project, which takes her to the outer suburbs of Moscow as part of an international project to address significant public health challenges in Russia. Birth rates there are declining. Life expectancy for men is dropping. The population as a whole is aging. Kelley said the goal of the Balashikha Project isn’t to encourage Russian women to have more babies, but rather to ensure that the babies who are born are much healthier.

Through Kelley’s work (collaborators include the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory School of Medicine and Future of Russia Foundation), the hospital at Balashikha has been transformed from a basic hospital to a perinatal center. Perinatal centers offer referrals and treatment for high-risk mothers and critically ill newborns, and Balashikha is quickly becoming an important destination for midwives and for women who may have difficult pregnancies.

While the technology available at Balashikha is state of the art, at least as important, Kelley said, is the family-centered care women are now receiving.

The approach at Balashikha is to treat childbirth as a natural event and that nurturing a woman properly—particularly a new mother—is a crucial part of their well-being.

“Women won’t be isolated in labor; they have someone with them who cares about them,” Kelley said, listing some of Balashikha’s planned innovations—none of which are unfamiliar to mothers in the United States. “Prenatal education for couples has recently been initiated. Labor, delivery and recovery rooms are being built. The doctors and midwives are excited about offering this type of patient-centered care to pregnant women in their area.”

Kelley’s next international trip is a slightly more personal one. In mid-July, she will be taking a mission trip to Guatemala, were she will help staff a health clinic as well as meet with many of the area’s midwives.

“No one who knew me when I was 20 would think that I would be in Ethiopia [or Russia] when I was 50,” Kelley said. “But life presents you with opportunities and this has been a wonderful one.”