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Dr. Sarah Jean Hanson: Delivering on Global Maternal Health

By Corey Jenkins Schaut, MPA '07 on October 24, 2011

Dr. Sarah Jean Hanson with a patient.

Whether it is on an Indian reservation in the southwestern United States, the heart of South Sudan, or a rural village in Southeast Asia, Dr. Sarah Jean Hanson, BS Biology ’02, has found that people view pregnancy and delivery the same way: it is a special and celebrated time.

“It’s treated slightly different every place you go, but the common thread is how important pregnancy is,” she says.

As an OB/GYN working in the public health field, Hanson has made a career of providing health care access to women around the globe, particularly access to safe labor and delivery.

Hanson, a former University Scholar, arrived at Mason interested in a career in public health but initially wanted to study HIV medicine. When she found herself ready to graduate from Mason a semester early, she took the advice of former University Scholars director, the late Noreen McGuire Prettyman, who suggested Hanson go overseas to get some additional public health experience. As a result, Hanson constructed a semester abroad in South Africa at an HIV clinic. While there, Hanson found herself most drawn to the troubles of the pregnant women she encountered.

Dr. Sarah Jean Hanson working in the Sudan

“The HIV patients were really rewarding to take care of, but the women’s problems [with pregnancy] seemed more interesting to me and very easy to fix,” she says. Something as simple as having access to antibiotics or medications to stop hemorrhages could make a significant difference in health outcomes for mothers and babies, not to mention having a trained professional to perform a difficult delivery.

Returning from Africa with a new focus, Hanson attended medical school at the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine) and completed a residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore last year.

In January 2011, she traveled to South Sudan with Doctors without Borders on a six-month maternal health project where she not only provided clinical services, but also trained local health professionals on running a safe and effective maternity ward at the local hospital.

Dr. Sarah Jean Hanson

During her stint there, the country held a referendum for its independence. “It was definitely an exciting time to be there, but it was a very tense political and security situation,” she says.

Hanson says she always felt safe in South Sudan, mainly because the local population so appreciates the impact the Doctors without Borders program has had there. The hospital where she worked boasts a less than 1 percent maternal mortality rate; the country as a whole averages a one in seven maternal mortality rate.

Hanson now serves with the Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Service. She practices medicine at Gallup Indian Medical Center on the Navajo reservation in Gallup, New Mexico.

Despite all her global travels, living in the American Southwest is an interesting cultural shift for the Roanoke, Virginia, native. In particular, she finds practicing medicine in the Navajo culture intriguing. Hanson notes that the entire family is present for the labor and birth, welcoming the new baby into the group by touching and holding him or her. Women also rarely have epidurals, believing that the pain of delivery is part of the experience.

“To them, this is actually not just a medical procedure where someone has a baby, but it is a whole community embracing every aspect of the delivery and arrival of this new person,” she notes.

Hanson credits her time at Mason, particularly in the University Scholars program, with bringing her to a rewarding career. She notes the scholars’ tenets of excellence in academics, service, leadership, and community as ideals she still uses in her life. She describes her work as a great privilege.

“In public health, every decision you make is not about money; it’s about what is the right thing for the patient and for the community,” she says. “That’s a cool way to be able to practice medicine.”

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