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Neonatologist kris olson | Meeting the Minds

He is 'The Man' of life-saving devices

Dr. Kris Olson, who specializes in neonatal care, creates simple, effective devices to help mothers and infants in developing countries. Dr. Kris Olson, who specializes in neonatal care, creates simple, effective devices to help mothers and infants in developing countries. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2008
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When Kris Olson was an undergrad, he took a year off from school to see the world. He wanted to let chance decide his fate, so he wrote Asia on one slip of paper, South American on another, and Africa on the third, crumpled them up in a hat, and picked one. Fate chose Asia.

Olson traveled extensively all over the continent, but it left him with an uneasy feeling. "I felt like a voyeur," he remembered. "You see poverty all around you, and I had nothing really to offer them."

Two decades later, Olson has something to offer them: he is bringing relatively simple medical technology to impoverished areas where it can lead to "easy wins."

As the program leader for the Global Health Initiative at the Center for Integration of Medicine and Technology - a nonprofit consortium of Boston-area teaching hospitals and engineering schools - the boyish 38-year-old has become, in the words of a colleague, " 'The Man' when it comes to medical technology for developing countries."

Olson, who spends half his time abroad and the other half as a pediatrician and internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, specializes in neonatal care, which he calls a blind spot in global health.

"Everywhere I went, it was 'stillborn, stillborn, stillborn,' " he said of his work in such places as Burma, Thailand, and Darfur. "Almost 40 percent of deaths happen in the first 28 days of life, and they are unseen deaths, buried in the backyard, accepted deaths. But in a lot of cases, they just needed to be given a breath," and they would have lived.

Working with the program, Olson did two things: he found a $7 alternative to the $50 "bag mask valve" device used in Western hospitals to provide ventilation to a person who is not breathing properly. And he created a program to train 330 midwives in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, how to use it.

When he returned to the area after the initial training, he was shocked at the reception. "All these midwives met me at my float plane to tell me how many babies they'd saved. One of them kept saying 'lima, lima,' which means five. She was saying she'd saved five babies. How awesome is that?"

Sitting in a conference room in Mass. General, Olson reached over and picked up the $7 device he provided the midwives. It is little more than a plastic tube with a tiny mask at one end. "You put it over their mouth and blow. That's it," he said as his voice took on a hint of emotion.

Two years ago, Olson's wife gave birth to triplets. It was a tricky birth, he says, and "my children probably would have died if they'd been born where 98 percent of children are born in this world. But with this," he said as he fingered the device, "three or four breaths and most babies are screaming and back to their mother."

Jose Gomez-Marquez, the director of the Innovations in International Health program at MIT, said that one of the things that sets Olson apart in global health is that he's on the ground as a clinician, and he listens to his patients.

"A lot of people say you just need to make the technology cheaper so people can afford it," Gomez-Marquez said. "But Kris understands that you have to design it for where it needs to work. It's so easy to sit here in Boston and think we can invent anything that the world needs, but he's able to learn from his patients, to listen to them. Just because they can't make something themselves doesn't mean they don't have the right idea about what they need."

This spirit is embodied in his latest project: the car-parts incubator. The idea, born at Boston University, holds that while it's great to donate a $30,000 incubator to a hospital in a developing world, the fact is that it's going to break down, and they won't know how to fix it. So Olson and his team built an incubator in a way that it could be fixed almost anywhere in the world.

A model stands next to his desk; it was constructed with parts from a Toyota 4-Runner.

But as the incubator sits in his office, waiting for the next round of funding (he thinks he can manufacture them for about $1,000), Olson admitted that, when you dedicate yourself to global health, life is a roller-coaster of emotions.

"Sometimes I sit here and think, 'This is such a fun, satisfying way to practice medicine. I can't believe it's available to me,' " he said. "But the other side is always: 'How much more can I do?' "

Hometown: Kamloops, British Columbia; lives in Holliston.

Education: Bachelor's degree in ecology from the University of British Columbia in 1993; Fulbright Scholar at the University of Sydney, where he got a master's of public health in 1996; M.D. from Vanderbilt in 1998.

Family: Wife, Erica, is a nurse at the Shrivers Burn Center. They have 2-year-old triplets: Lily, Shane, and Nathaniel.

Hobbies: Climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, reading, and being in the outdoors.

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