Little Light House - The University of Tulsa

Little Light House

Nursing student focused on career in international medicine

University of Tulsa nursing student Laura Nichols packed her bags to spend the summer working in the emergency and trauma room at a public hospital in Arequipa, Peru.

She witnessed how citizens who needed stitches would have to first be written a prescription, pay the fee, then return with the supplies before being treated. “They were able to turn people away who didn’t have a true emergency, and the process of evaluating to helping the patient moved much slower,” Nichols explained. The patient must pay for all services and supplies, including the syringe and gloves the doctor uses, before the procedure can be performed.”

On her days off work, she explored the country and learned more about the culture of Peru. “I hiked the second largest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon, from bottom to top. I visited Lake Titicaca, did a homestay with Peru natives and even sand boarded in Huacachina,” she said.

Lessons learned

During her time in Peru, Nichols learned various skills that have impacted her education; She learned how to effectively communicate with others in her care, despite a language barrier. “The experience really made me rely on nonverbal therapeutic communication that is emphasized in our classes at TU,” she explained.

As she reminisced about the experience, one moment stuck with her: “A women was crossing the street, fell and dislocated her shoulder. A man on his way to work grabbed her out of the street and brought her to our ER. She had no ID, so we could not identify her or contact her closest family member,” Nichols explained, who was shocked to see how the news spread throughout the community. Eventually, it reached the patient’s son on the other side of the city.

Nichols is volunteering with the Junior Women’s Association of Tulsa and the Tulsa Boys’ Home and is also a member of the young professional’s board for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She said that she loves giving her time to each organization and advocating for those in need within the local community.

Working toward a better future

Her international service in the medical field is extensive. As a sophomore, she spent the winter of 2019 spearheading the development of training videos for childcare workers in Nigeria. This work is a collaborative effort between TU’s School of Nursing, the TU Student Nurses’ Association (TUSNA) and Little Light House, a Tulsa organization that provides educational and therapeutic services to young children with special needs.
Across TU programs emphasize connections between the university and community partners. In the School of Nursing each year, TUSNA undertakes a community-development project. Little Light House had approached TUSNA about creating the videos to teach Nigerian workers at an orphanage and school run by Right Steps Inc., a U.S.-registered 501(c)3 that supports women and children in southeast Nigeria. TUSNA members agreed this was a worthy project. As the organization’s service chair, Nichols organized her fellow student volunteers to write scripts and coordinate with the videographer.

Simple childcare techniques for minimizing disease

“Many of the people who care for children in Nigeria are passionate about their work, but they lack access to the knowledge and skills necessary to minimize disease,” Nichols observed. She noted they also face many physical challenges, such as having to draw water from a river contaminated by sewage run-off.

TUSNA’s videos exemplify both community partnership and global connectedness. They cover a range of essential topics, including hand hygiene, diaper-changing, nutrition appropriate to the region and bathing. The Nigerian workers, Nichols explained, “can go through our training program, earn a certificate and work at that orphanage, school or other health care facilities in the area.”
The initiative supports both individuals and their communities, Nichols said. “Studies have shown that with preventative measures in place, you can add a decade to your life. So, this training will change not only the orphanage and school in Nigeria. It’s also going to benefit the community as a whole because these workers are going to take the information home to their families and their villages.”

A network of support and opportunity

Bachelor of science in nursing student Laura Nichols outside at The University of TulsaIn late March 2019, Nichols received a NOVA Fellowship to support the video project. “This fellowship opened more doors for us,” Nichols said. “As a result, we were able to do the professional videography in late April. We then edited the materials and sent them to Little Light House by June,” Nichols continued. “I would really like to thank NOVA, Little Light House, the School of Nursing and TUSNA for helping us make such a great impact across the world. We couldn’t have done it without them, and I’m really excited to see where this will take us.”

Nichols said she enjoyed working with Little Light House because she’d never been involved in pediatrics or with children who live with disabilities. “It’s opened my eyes to other possibilities in nursing, as well as to unmet needs here in Tulsa and all around the world,” she explained. “And the people at Little Light House are so friendly and helpful and willing to answer all your questions.”

After graduating from TU, she hopes to become a global nurse.


NSF-funded robotics project helps children with hypotonia at Little Light House

Members of the Biological Robotics at Tulsa (BRAT) Research Group in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, are studying the muscle condition hypotonia to improve the quality of life for children who suffer from it. Graduate student Bradford Kerst and Joshua Schultz, an associate professor and BRAT group director, partnered with teachers and therapists at Little Light House in Tulsa to learn how hypotonia reduces muscle tone and strength. Their research is sponsored by a grant from the Disability and Rehabilitation Engineering program at the National Science Foundation and is TU’s first nationally funded project in rehabilitation robotics.

Understanding hypotonia

Kerst said he and Schultz are beginning the final phase of data collection through a device that supports a child’s head and is worn by Little Light House students who experience weak neck muscles as a result of hypotonia. Known commercially as a Headpod, the device holds a child’s head in a neutral posture. Current therapy for hypotonia involves supporting a child’s head from a lightweight suspension frame using a cable and head strap, but TU researchers plan to build a robotic prototype that relinquishes a portion of the support when a child does not need it. This will allow therapists to program a regimen that trains neck muscles in the hope that strength development will enable children to hold up their heads on their own.

“We will use a motion capture system and the initial data gathered to pick out the right motor size for the device, and we’re working with therapists to determine what safety features we need,” Kerst explained.

Little Light House students who have worn the data-capturing Headpod so far have been able to access switches near their head to activate a switch-adapted power wheels truck. Lynda Crouch, assistive technology coordinator at Little Light House, also explained that, in some instances, the Headpod device has been attached to a stander. “Because of the support of the Headpod, we can see secondary results of increased visual attention and social interaction with other students. Their heads are supported in an upright position to see their world. Without the Headpod, they keep their head down or we have to position them reclined in wheelchairs.”

Robotics to the rescue

With mentoring from Schultz, Kerst and an undergraduate researcher who will be added to the TU team this fall will develop biomechanical computer models to program the device’s robotic support system. The project is Kerst’s first exposure to robotics research and has piqued his interest in a career that uses rehabilitation robotics to improve head control.

“Our goal is to understand hypotonia and learn new information about the disorder that we can use in the future to help people,” he said. “It’s been overlooked in a lot of research, so it’s something Professor Schultz and the therapists discussed and saw a need to study.”

As researchers complete the final phase of data collection, Little Light House therapists anticipate a TU design that will improve head positioning for students and allow them to participate fully in daily classroom activities.

“We already knew our students were special, but this research has shown us how unique and incredible they are,” said Crouch. “We’re learning how important it is to capture data that reflects what we as therapists and teachers observe in daily interactions with the children.”

TU faculty and students have a long history of working closely with the Little Light House. Schultz and Kerst meet bi-weekly with the school’s staff to incorporate problem-solving, strategic planning and engineering applications into the plan for a therapeutic device.

Once data collection is complete, Schultz and his team of student researchers will build a prototype that they plan to begin testing in 2020.