Department News

Kristen DeStigter: Reducing maternal mortality in Uganda

June 24, 2019 by Phyl Newbeck

Kristen DeStigter of Charlotte admits she doesn’t take part in a lot of the recreational activities many Vermonters enjoy but she has plenty to keep her busy. DeStigter is the chair of the radiology department at the University of Vermont Medical Center, a professor at the UVM Larner College of Medicine, and president and co-founder of Imaging the World, a non-profit that provides ultrasound imaging to impoverished areas of Africa.

Early in her career, DeStigter worked in a lab that researched parasites and spent some time in Kenya. Many of the parasites could be seen through ultrasound imaging. At the end of a day of lab work, she and her team ran a health clinic for the locals. Many of those who came were pregnant women so the ultrasound machine was used again.

“This was in the early 1990s,” DeStigter said, “and these women were 14 hours from the nearest hospital where they could get a C-section and some were suffering from conditions which were likely to kill them. That stayed with me for a very long time.”

To rectify this problem, DeStigter co-founded Imaging the World in 2008 and brought ultrasound machines to Uganda. The location was chosen because the capital city, Kampala, had an ultrasound training center. Nurses and midwives were taught how to do sweeps which were then sent via cell phone to people who could interpret them and determine if there were issues which could negatively impact a woman’s pregnancy.

“Roughly 25 percent of the time we would find something that would change the management of the pregnancy,” DeStigter said.

The more the nurses and midwives did the sweeps, the better they got at interpreting the information themselves, so now local medical personnel perform that function with back-up checks in the U.S.

“What we’ve seen,” DeStigter said, “is there is a 70 percent increase in women coming to the clinics and seeking medical care so the impact to total health is significantly improved. The ultrasound machine is a diagnostic tool which can be used for other conditions.”

The Uganda program is now run by locals including eight nurses who serve as teachers for new recruits. Imaging the World has trained over 200 health care professionals and has impacted over 300,000 lives. The non-profit is about to expand into Malawi as part of a joint venture with the Warm Hearts Foundation. During her thrice-annual trips to Uganda, DeStigter brings students from Champlain Valley Union High School, as well as medical students and hospital residents.

The 56-year-old DeStigter first came to Vermont on vacation with her then-husband and was so impressed with the state that she called UVM Medical Center to see if they were hiring. In 2001, she joined the staff and moved to Charlotte, becoming chair of the radiology department in 2017. DeStigter considers herself a lifelong learner and recalls chatting with a local farmer about the problems one Uganda clinic was having with rats chewing on plastic cords. He told her his farm rubbed dryer sheets on cords as a preventative measure so she sent a box to Uganda and the problem was solved.

DeStigter was awarded the American College of Radiology Foundation’s Global Humanitarian Award in 2016 and two years later, received the UVM Citizen of the World Award.

“Much of what I do is a matrix where everything intersects,” she said. “Nothing seems like a chore. I spend my downtime talking to Rotary Clubs or potential funders or writing grants but I love what I do and feel that it’s where my talents are best used.”

(This story originally appeared in the Shelburne News on May 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.)