A device that was created to prevent astronauts and aviators alike from passing out under the duress of gravitational force is being used to save the lives of new mothers in developing countries.
The anti-gravity suit typically works by applying pressure to the arms and legs, encouraging blood flow back to the head. A later version of the suit – dubbed a Non-Pneumatic Anti-Shock Garment (NASG) – was developed by NASA in the 1990s. However, thanks to Stanford obstetrician Dr Paul Hensleigh and Dr Suellen Miller, the NASG has also proven effective at reducing maternal mortality rates by stemming severe bleeding, which is one of the leading causes of maternal death.
“Dr Hensleigh and I thought it be of great benefit to use the NASG, or the LifeWrap as we started to call it, in low resource and rural settings,” Dr Miller, the founder of University of California San Francisco’s Safe Motherhood Program explains, noting that women here are likely to suffer obstetric haemorrhaging and shock at home.
“It may take hours or even days for her to be transported to a functioning hospital equipped to save her life,” says Dr Miller, who began developing the NASG alongside Dr Hensleigh in 2002. “Many women die on the way to the hospital.”
Indeed, a woman can bleed to death in around two hours. However, by applying the LifeWrap – a neoprene garment that resembles the lower half of a wetsuit – the bleeding is stemmed, which buys her more time to seek further treatment. “The tight neoprene of the NASG wrap compresses blood vessels in the lower extremities and abdomen, while allowing circulating blood to reach the heart, lungs, and brain, the core organs,” explains Dr Miller. “By doing so, the NASG reverses shock and decreases blood flow in the uterus.”
While initial testing proved the LifeWrap to be highly effective, Dr Miller and Dr Hensleigh struggled to get governments and the World Health Organisation to take notice. “We had to conduct rigorous clinical trials to show that women who were treated with the NASG survived and had fewer morbidities than women who did not receive the NASG,” says Dr Miller. “That took several years.”
Indeed, between 2003 and 2013, Dr Miller and Dr Hensleigh conducted trials in Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe before the World Health Organisation added the NASG to its PPH treatment guidelines. Today, the LifeWrap has been used on over 10,000 women in 33 different countries.
However, while the LifeWrap is of enormous benefit to the women in developing countries who make up 99% of the 300,000 women who die each year of obstetric haemorrhaging, Dr Miller believes there’s a place for the LifeWrap in richer countries too. “Actually, any woman who experiences obstetric hemorrhage who is not in a place where the bleeding can be stopped and blood transfusions given to replace lost blood can benefit,” says the certified midwife. “For example, midwives in the US who attend births at women’s home in rural areas use the LifeWrap to keep the woman stable during transport.”
At [US] $55, the LifeWrap is affordable, reusable and – after brief training – is easy to apply. Did Dr Miller ever envisage that something so simple had the potential to reverse maternal mortality?
“No, I did not,” she replies. “I was pretty desperate in looking for something, anything, that could stop bleeding and shock, and keep women alive to not only care for their newborns, but to go on to lead productive healthy lives,” she explains. “This LifeWrap seemed too simple, too low tech, too easy to use, but we’ve seen thousands of lives saved already and look to saving many, many more.”