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UMass Inventor Insists On Due Credit For Nurses Who Innovate

Nurse Rachel Walker, demonstrating one of her inventions.
Heather Duggan
Nurse Rachel Walker, demonstrating one of her inventions.

A UMass Amherst nursing professor has been named to a national panel of inventors -- the first nurse to be honored alongside engineers and computer scientists from companies like Microsoft and IBM.

Rachel Walker said it's about time her profession got credit for its innovations.

Walker first started thinking about invention as a tool for better living before she even went to nursing school. She was in the Peace Corps in Mali, where she saw aid workers attempt to replace village wells with solar-powered ones. But the new wells kept breaking down, and no one knew how to repair them.

"And now people were walking miles, when before they had just been walking across the village to get their water," she said. "To me, that was an example of not a bad innovation, but not considering context, and the capability of the people who were going to be ultimately using that product."

When Walker went into nursing, she began to think about ways to improve health care by understanding what patients truly need and want -- something nurses are well-positioned to do.

She pointed out one nurse named Bessie Blunt Griffin, "an African-American nurse, who during World War II, saw that there were veterans who were paralyzed, couldn't eat -- and she invented feeding tubes."

More recently, intensive care nurses were trying to stop babies from pulling out their intravenous tubes.

"They started using these little Dixie cups as a protective thing around the I.V. site," Walker said. "It turns out that's now in the process of becoming a medical device."

Nurses also invented hospice care, she said, and helped develop hand sanitizer.

But in most cases, Walker said, the credit still goes to those at the top of the medical hierarchy.

She remembers working at Johns Hopkins hospital and learning that a doctor there had just won a MacArthur "genius" award for developing a checklist to reduce surgical infections.

"I almost fell out of my chair when I heard that," Walker said, "because that safety checklist was essentially something nurses had been using for decades."

Walker, 38, now runs a team at UMass that combines nursing know-how with computer science and engineering.

Her own inventions include special glasses that measure fatigue in cancer patients, and a machine that can generate IV fluids from water in disaster zones. She also developed a device that can measure toxicity in the blood after chemotherapy.

Now that she's been named an invention ambassador by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she's planning to publicize other nurse-led inventions. She said it's not in the nursing culture to brag, "but if we don't take ownership of [our inventions], sometimes they can also be taken in directions that maybe aren't where we want to see them go."

And that means making sure new inventions, devised by nurses, don't end up helping tech investors more than patients.

Walker's new position does not come with a stipend, she said, but it will pay for her to give several lectures on nursing inventions.

Copyright 2021 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.
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