Project HOPE is a global health and humanitarian organization, working side-by-side with local health workers and communities to save lives and improve the health and well-being of people around the world.
When Sierra Leone was hit by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the country’s already-weak healthcare system was struck, too. With little international assistance established in the area, volunteer healthcare advocates had their work cut out for them.
Sierra Leone, a West African country that experiences extreme rates of poverty, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with one in 20 women dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth — and a significantly high infant mortality rate: 78 deaths per 1,000 live births.
These folks are at a severely high risk of death or debilitating illness, due to inadequate healthcare practices and facilities.
But there is hope. Specifically, Project HOPE.
The health and humanitarian nonprofit first began supporting the nation’s health initiatives with emergency aid during the Ebola epidemic, and when working with Sierra Leone’s health ministry to assess future interventions, experts saw an opportunity to intervene in another major health crisis: maternal and infant care.
Project HOPE began developing maternal and newborn-focused programs in Sierra Leone in 2015, with the intention of building the capacity of healthcare workers, and in turn, strengthening facilities and communities.
This work included the expansion of care units for newborns, co-authoring a set of national training tools for essential newborn care, and the development of a full curriculum for a specialized neonatal nursing program with the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences at the University of Sierra Leone (COMAHS).
In 2019, Sierra Leone was finally ready to create a skilled nursing workforce for small and sick newborns — and the neonatal nursing bachelor’s degree program at COMAHS was born.
“We found the health care community to be very receptive to Project HOPE’s programs, and there was a deep desire to improve the high neonatal mortality rate in the country,” Dr. Carolyn Kruger, a volunteer and former Director of Nursing at Project HOPE, wrote in a blog post for the organization.
“Sierra Leone had a history of civil war and was an epicenter for Ebola in Africa,” Kruger wrote. “This history depleted the human resources that were assigned to hospital care of mothers, children, and newborns. Many health care workers were not up-to-date on their skills; equipment and supplies were scarce; and the remaining nurses and doctors were often not paid for their services — but they were committed to improving newborn care.”
Project HOPE’s many volunteers helped develop curriculum, facilitate technical support, and served as mentors to Sierra Leone’s up-and-coming neonatal nurses — much of this done virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When travel restrictions were lifted, volunteers visited Ola During Children’s Hospital to implement advanced training for COMAHS students.
The bachelor’s program has since had two classes of graduates: 13 in 2022 and 14 in 2023. These first students have now been placed in four special care baby and pediatric units, and the specialty unit at Ola During is being developed as a national neonatal teaching center for other nurses.
The goal is to create long-term impact to help lower the country’s astronomical neonatal mortality rates.
“Prior to this program, there were no nurses in the entire country who had advanced specialty training in neonatal care,” Project HOPE’s global technician officer of Maternal Neonatal Child Health, Kristin Anderson, told Good Good Good.
“In Sierra Leone, neonatal mortality rates are alarmingly high, and there is a critical human resource gap for skilled nurses to care for small and sick newborns,” Anderson said. “Project HOPE supports this need through clinical and academic mentorship.”
With Project HOPE’s support through volunteer programs, seminar series, and ongoing expert support to improve care in Sierra Leone, it’s only natural that the next step in this programming is a master’s degree track.
The first of its kind in the country, COMAHS Masters of Science in Neonatal Nursing class has accepted 12 students, 10 of whom Project HOPE has supported through scholarships. (The college has provided the remaining two students with tuition waivers).
These 12 students will begin the program in August 2023, which is a two-year degree track that will schedule classes and clinical hours around students’ work hours in nearby health clinics.
Similarly to the bachelor’s program, Project HOPE will help provide course content and curriculum. This support will also include guest lecturers from the Thomas Jeferson College of Nursing in Philadelphia and the UMTB School of Nursing in Galveston, Texas, according to Anderson.
“I’m very proud of what Project HOPE volunteers have accomplished with our partners and counterparts in Sierra Leone — especially in the development of a program that will train a generation of neonatal nurses,” Kruger wrote.
“This program is one of the first-of-its-kind in Africa and stands out as an example of true partnership and collaboration that other countries and organizations can follow.”