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UMass nursing professor Rachel Walker is awarded for her work on a life-saving medical tool

  • Rachel Walker, a nurse researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discusses an invention to filter unclean water into sterile IV bags with Sarah Perry, a professor of chemical engineering, left, and Bryan Chua, a chemical engineering at the Commonwealth Honors College, in the Applied Life Sciences building. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Rachel Walker, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, center, works at an emergency medical facility set up by the Johns Hopkins Hospital following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Contributed photo—

  • Rachel Walker tests out a pair of glasses designed to track eye movement and document fatigue in cancer patients. Contributed photo

  • Rachel Walker, a nurse researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tests out a pair of glasses designed to track eye movement and document fatigue in cancer patients. Contributed photo—

  • Walker during an emergency medical mission to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Contributed photo—

  • Rachel Walker helped develop a prototype backpack device that, with a filtration system, sterilizes water to be used in IV bags in crisis zones. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, June 25, 2018

The phone of Rachel Walker, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, buzzed with an incoming text message.

It was a few weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of last year, nurses on the island, whom she was supposed to join on a conference call, were canceling. Their supplies were running low, they said, and, simultaneously, power was knocked out to the majority of the island including three manufacturing plants for Baxter International Inc., a main supplier of sterile intravenous bags.

What were they going to do? The bags are vital to patient care because they can deliver fluids directly into the bloodstream.

"As I was getting these texts, and after talking to some of my colleagues ... I (realized) that we have people who build filtration systems and know about chemistry and mechanical engineering, couldn't we build something to address this problem?" said Walker, as she talked in her office at the University of Massachusetts last week.

She remembered seven years earlier being in Haiti with an emergency medical team in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and facing a similar crisis. Walker, who was assigned as the team’s triage nurse, recalls turning away hundreds of people each day because they didn’t have enough medical supplies.

“There was so very little room, and so few supplies,” Walker recalled. “We ran out of IV fluids, and we had to make decisions like 'who gets the last bag of normal saline.’ ”

Taking action

Walker also serves as associate director at the university’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences Center of Personalized Health Monitoring, a campus organization that develops medical technologies through collaboration with engineers, computer scientists, chemists and nurses. With the shortages caused by Maria, she decided it was time to take action. 

Over the past six months, she has led a research team to develop a prototype backpack device that cleans water through a filtration system, allowing first responders to filter un-sanitized water into empty IV bags, cleaned to medical-grade standards, during a humanitarian crisis.

Right now, filled bags, which take up a lot of room, are shipped in emergency situations. With the filtration device, unfilled bags containing salt, vitamins, and other medical products, requiring much less space, could be stored and filled on site.

For her work on the IV bags, Walker, 38, has been selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Lemelson Foundation, two science-based organizations, as an “invention ambassador,” as part of a program intended to highlight the importance of innovation in science through events and outreach.

Among the elite

She is the first nurse to receive the distinction, which so far has been reserved for scientific researchers from universities and business like IBM and Microsoft. Other ambassadors include Dr. Tyrone W. A. Grandison, founder of The Data-Driven Institute and adviser to the Government of Jamaica on its information technology strategy, and John Warner, a chemist who won the Perkin Medal, which is regarded as the highest honor for American chemists, and The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring, considered one of the highest awards for science education in the nation. 

Walker says she intends to use her new platform to draw attention to other nurses whose scientific contributions haven’t yet received adequate recognition. As invention ambassador, a title Walker says she never expected to achieve, her first step will be to attend an event in Washington, D.C. next month where she’ll meet other ambassadors and have a chance to promote nurses as technological innovators.

In so doing, Walker hopes to give the nursing profession, which she notes is traditionally perceived as “women’s work,” more credibility in the scientific community. And within the healthcare industry, Walker wants her efforts to erode a top-down hierarchy of respect that seats doctors at the top and sometimes prevents nurses from receiving credit for their scientific contributions.

"Nurses are, year after year, voted the most trusted profession in the United States. We're often associated with characteristics like caring, and advocating for our patients, but we're not always as well respected as scientists, and innovators and leaders, even though every nurse on the floor who you're going to meet is leading in some way," Walker said.

Driven by experience

She saw this hierarchy of recognition most vividly while in graduate school at John's Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During her studies, Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, a physician there, was named to the MacArthur Fellows Program, known as the “genius grant,” a prestigious honor that comes with a $500,000 grant. He was rewarded for a five-step safety checklist that included a defined “time-out” for hand washing, intended to prevent infections, which he implemented in the operating room. 

"The concept of a safety checklist for patient safety, and the concept of a time out in the operating room, have been around for a very long time,” said Walker. “And it was nurses who developed them.” However, while Pronovost, who is a doctor of anesthesiology, received high recognition and praise, nurses “who have been fighting that (infection prevention) fight for a very long time, and continue to today, have never been raised up in that way."

Walker pointed to Bessie Blount Griffin, a nurse and physical therapist who worked with returning World War II veterans in the 1950s, as an example. Griffin invented the electronic feeding tube and disposable emisis basins, among other things, which are now commonly used in patient care but she never received recognition, Walker says.

In the 1960s, a student nurse, Lupe Hernandez, invented what’s now known as hand sanitizer, she says, but was never highly recognized.

Walker herself has a number of medical inventions to her name. She has worked on several new technologies over the years, including a device, created in collaboration with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, which can measure the toxicity of bodily fluids following chemotherapy. Another, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, documents fatigue in cancer patients using eye-tracking glasses.

The glasses were developed by UMass Ph.D. candidate Addison Mayberry and Dr. Deepak Ganesan, both from the university’s computer science department, and didn’t have a purpose until Walker presented a problem to them: fatigue in cancer patients. She first encountered it while working as a registered nurse in an oncology unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she also received her undergraduate degree in nursing.

Ultimately, Walker says, inventing new medical technologies should be about saving lives. And often nurses understand real-world medical problems better than others in the scientific and medical fields because they’re the ones dealing with them every day.

And by elevating the technological advancements of nurses in her role an invention ambassador, Walker is hoping to change the way the nursing profession is viewed for the better.

"Every time the work of nurses and nurse inventors is highlighted, particularly by an independent group of scientists, that further raises the credibility that all nurses have to do their work,” she said.

"I hope this incoming generation of nurses — the ones who are in school now, thinking about going to school, or who have just graduated and are out on the floors and in community settings — I'd like them to feel empowered that, when they have an idea to make things better, they can take that idea and make it a reality, and along the way, have their work both supported and recognized," she says.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

Collaboration

A list of other researchers working with Rachel Walker follows: 

Mike Busa, facilities director at the IALS Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, Sarah Perry, chemical engineering professor, Bryan Chua, undergraduate chemical engineering student at the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass, and Dr. Julian Atim, a physician from Uganda and an MBA student and innovation fellow at the Isenberg School of Management, are collaborating with Walker on the filtration device. Perry is also working with Walker on the device to measure toxicity.

The eye tracking device was invented by Addison Mayberry, a graduate student in computer science, with Deepak Ganesan, a professor in computer science, and was integrated with help from Lisa Wood, a nurse professor with a PhD in molecular biology, and Adrian Staub, a professor in the university’s Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences and director of the UMass eye tracking lab.