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Midstate woman hopes to equip midwives, save lives with special backpack

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Aug 8, 2018 12:55 PM
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Tessa Balencic demonstrates her Hera Brand backpack. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

(Harrisburg) -- Around the world, more than 300,000 women die in childbirth each year, and 2.7 million newborns die during their first month of life.

The figures are from the World Health Organization, which said the majority of such deaths could be prevented with quality care from a midwife.

But in the developing world, many face barriers to providing care.

Tessa Balencic, of Lancaster County, hopes to help midwives by getting them the right tools.

She's designed the Hera Brand backpack specifically with the midwife in mind.

The black rectangular bag weighs in around 30 pounds when fully loaded with equipment, but it's designed to be comfortable to carry for long distances, like a backpack used for hiking.

Plus, Balencic said it could be a major improvement for some midwives.

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The Hera Brand Mobile Health Pack can weigh around 30 pounds when fully loaded with equipment. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

"I remember reading over and over again that midwives only had a rusty razor blade tied to a string and they would wear it around their neck and that was the only equipment they had," Balencic said. 

Kate McHugh, Director of Global Outreach for the American College of Nurse-Midwives, said it's true midwives in some developing countries lack basic resources to care for their patients.

"You go to small countries, you're out in a rural area, they may not even have a blood pressure cuff," McHugh said, adding it can be difficult for midwives to access medications to stop bleeding or even running water to wash their hands. 

McHugh said one bright spot is there has been more of a global commitment over the past few decades to stop unnecessary maternal and infant death.

Balencic hopes to be part of the movement with her backpack. It was partially inspired by the midwife who delivered her second child, a woman Balencic describes as 'her rock."

After the birth, Balencic suffered postpartum depression and leaned on her midwife for support.

"She made a great impact on me and I thought if I could be anything like her I would want to be like that," Balencic said. 

She made plans to become a nurse-midwife, but that dream was dashed by a shoulder injury at age 24.

Balencic described the feeling of realizing she couldn't become a midwife as "catastrophic," but she had to pick herself back up. She enrolled at Elizabethtown College to study international business and looked for a way to incorporate her background in health care. 

"I wanted to somehow take the passion I had for people, patients--specifically women--and roll it into something tangible," Balencic said.

She came up with a design brief outlining how she wanted to equip midwives and connected with the Social Enterprise Institute at Elizabethtown. Through that, she was able to collaborate with industrial design students in Philadelphia to understand the challenges midwives face around the world.

She said the team watched videos of live births to understand the pain points of a midwife and her patients. They considered terrain and temperatures in areas where the pack could be used, such as Haiti and Sierra Leone.

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The backpack can be separated into two bags. (Photo Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

The final design is made of heavy-duty, splash resistant, antimicrobial material. It zips open to lay completely flat and contains customizable compartments to keep tools organized and accessible. It would be up to the midwife or health organization to decide how to best stock the pack. 

It can be separated into two bags, so a midwife can share the load if she is working with a partner. Or she could take just one part of the pack if she's going to perform a routine checkup. 

It also has a solar panel attached to the front to charge devices in the field.

With such a niche product, Balencic said it's been difficult to find an appropriate manufacturer. So, she's hoping to license the design to a health care company or institution that can get the packs into the hands of midwives.

That may be difficult. Because there is such a need for training and basic equipment, the pack could be seen as an unnecessary expense.


Innovation U is a project from WITF, where we share stories of local entrepreneurs and midstate universities who are working together to make new ideas come to life.  Learn more  at witf.org/innovation

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