USA Health physician Om Jha wins international Mahatma Gandhi Expatriate Award for his work to help extremely premature infants thrive.

Published Mar 22nd, 2019

A decade ago, while working in a newborn nursery during a residency in Illinois, a nurse asked Dr. Om Jha for help because she couldn’t manage to insert a catheter into an infant.

If only we could go through the abdomen, she said.

That got him thinking. If it was possible for adults it should also be possible for a newborn.

A native of India, Dr. Jha says working in an area with limited resources encourages you to come up with creative solutions.

So that’s what he did.

His efforts to help the tiniest among us thrive has been recognized in recent years with several honors. In late 2018, Dr. Jha traveled to the London House of Commons to be presented with an NRI Welfare Society of India Mahatma Gandhi Expatriate Award that was presented during the Global Achievers Conclave.

Each year the awards are presented to 25 people out of the 30 million non-resident Indians living around the world. His class included those from all walks of life and all parts of the globe. He has never learned who nominated him.

The person who suggested him clearly knew of Dr. Jha’s passion to develop technology and new devices that lead to better outcomes for severely premature infants. Even before joining USA Health, he devoted himself to creating solutions to problems specific to that field.

Back in Illinois more than a decade ago, he entered a local innovation competition, garnering great interest in a product to allow a catheter to be placed in an infant’s abdomen. Southern Illinois University eventually patented the device, and a Chicago company acquired the technology which is expected to be available to healthcare providers in the near future.

Then Dr. Jha went back to his primary duties as a pediatric resident.

A few years later, he met a neonatologist from USA Health Children’s & Women’s Hospital during a conference and learned about the hospital’s success with resuscitating babies born as early as 22 weeks. Soon after, he departed southern California to take a job in Mobile at USA Health Children’s & Women’s Hospital.

At USA Health, his curiosity has led to numerous collaborations with his colleagues. Some of their projects include a plastic sheet with EKG leads attached so that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) team can run an EKG and actively resuscitate a newborn at the same time, all while keeping a tiny baby warm. There’s also a bacteria-proof cover for cell phones to be dispensed right next to the gloves and hand sanitizer when people approach the NICU. He’s also developing ideas to increase the effectiveness of bilirubin lights and computer programs to help fight financial fraud in the healthcare system.

“Whenever you start these ideas, if you have the intent to help people, that’s when you’re are able to get to the goal,” says Dr. Jha. He starts with an idea and a rough sketch and — “if it’s going to help a baby” — he’ll put the time and effort into it.

“The number one thing is that it should be helping the patient.”

Living in the United States on an H1 visa, Dr. Jha is not allowed to be the majority owner of a company, so it’s easier to focus on patient benefits rather than personal financial gain.

In 2015, he joined the USA College of Medicine as an assistant professor of pediatrics with a specialty in neonatology, and in the summer of 2017 he started a social media campaign to raise awareness of the struggles of premature babies through the “Hair-Raising Challenge” — winning the Faculty Innovation Award from the USA National Alumni Association.

Dr. Jha — who is also a member of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs — is a native of the Patna District of Bihar, India. He completed his medical education and a pediatric residency there, then repeated his residency at Southern Illinois University and a neonatology fellowship at the University of Southern California, before joining the University of South Alabama medical school faculty.

Everything about his chosen field suits him.

Working with extremely premature infants born after just 22 weeks gestation, you’re fighting to help a child struggling between life and death, he says.

“It’s not just the successful delivery and seeing the infant stay the course from one end of the spectrum to the other, from near-death to being able to sustain life independently,” Dr. Jha says. “It’s knowing this baby will be able to achieve everything in life.”

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