Approaching prenatal education

Researcher profile: Suzanne Lennon

Until recently, students in Manitoba who wished to pursue a doctoral degree in nursing had to leave the province to do so. But in September of 2012 the University of Manitoba opened the first doctoral program for nursing in Manitoba.

Suzanne Lennon was among the first students to enter the program, fast-tracking after having completed her master’s coursework at the U of M in 2012.

“Myself and a couple of my colleagues who were finished our course work were approached,” Lennon told the Gradzette.

The faculty was offering this opportunity of “fast-tracking” for some students who had done well in the program, and though she was hesitant to apply at first, Lennon eventually decided to go for it.

“I’d left my full-time job [to pursue] a two year masters’ degree and then I was going to get right back into the work-force again,” she explained. “But by that point I’d sort of already gotten the research bug a little bit. So I thought, ‘well you can’t succeed if you don’t try!’”

The doctoral programs in the faculty of nursing have been in development for ten years. Their purpose is to develop “scholars who will engage in programs of research that will positively influence ” the field of health care and the health of those who use the health care system.

Lennon’s interest in nursing first came about after completing an arts undergrad from the University of Winnipeg. Her young family needed to move to the United States, and in order to secure employment south of the border, Lennon put herself through a four-year nursing degree at the U of M in what must be record time.

“I got into nursing at the time when the only way to get into nursing was to take a four-year degree,” she recalled. “But I didn’t have four years. So I took a four-year degree in five semesters. I took eight courses one term. It was crazy. It’s just a blur to me now, and we had a one-and-a-half-year-old. I actually don’t know how it got done.”

Lennon came into her master’s program in 2011 with a clear idea of what she wanted to research, having spent 12 years as a bedside nurse in maternal-child nursing.

“I’d worked both as a high-risk labour delivery nurse and in the intermediate and intensive care nurseries. So I came in knowing that’s where I wanted to stay, and that’s where my passion was.”

Of course, as many grad students can attest passion doesn’t necessarily always line up with the academic side of grad studies. Lennon was lucky in this regard.

“My advisor is just amazing,” Lennon admitted. “She’s an internally known researcher in maternal-child health. Dr. Maureen Heaman was very influential in guiding me towards what I was interested in.”

Lennon’s research is focused on gestational diabetes, which she explained is “a huge problem in Manitoba.”

“Gestational diabetes is a condition of varying severity so there is little in the way of actual tracking of all cases. In Manitoba, during the 20 year period from 1985-2004, the rate of gestational diabetes rose from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent, with First Nations women having a three to five times increased risk.”

Lennon explained that gestational diabetes is a somewhat normal part of pregnancy. As babies begin to require more and more glucose to grow, the mother’s body ends up diverting more and more of her glucose to the womb.

“We want that to happen,” she said. “Gestational diabetes becomes a pathology when it extends to the point that the woman’s blood sugars are now adversely affected by that insulin resistance.”

The problems associated with gestational diabetes can include difficult births, problems with feeding after birth, and can also lead to Type 2 diabetes during childhood. As Manitoba has the highest rate of childhood Type 2 diabetes, Lennon believes strongly that this is a problem that needs to be addressed in the province, and hopes her research can help do just that.

Mothers who experience gestational diabetes can also develop Type 2 diabetes, though the link between the two has been difficult to establish.

“It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing,” Lennon explained. Although the literature suggests a strong correlation between mothers who have gestational diabetes and the onset of Type 2 diabetes, it is possible that many of those women were either already at risk of Type 2 diabetes, or were previously diabetic, but had not been diagnosed.

While gestational diabetes itself is a rich topic for research, Lennon’s work with Heaman is more specific.

“Dr. Heaman’s program is largely centered on risk perception and understanding how people think about health risk,” she told the Gradzette. “My interest came in how different genders perceive health risk.”

According to Lennon, there is very little research into how different genders perceive the health risks associated with gestational diabetes, and how those risks are communicated effectively to both partners during a pregnancy.

“We tend to ignore men in maternal-child health,” she explained. “We don’t really consider that maybe men approach things differently, that fathers have an important role to play.”

“My impetus for this research came from working in the intensive care nursery,” Lennon recalled, “and you’d see these babies with gestational diabetes, and they were not well [ . . . ] That got me thinking about whether men and women look at things differently. We need to define whether men and women view the disease differently. And if they do, then why?”

Lennon’s research will use a mixed methodology, drawing from both quantitative and qualitative research methods. While she is now completing her coursework, and will begin research in the fall, she has yet to determine exactly how she will proceed with her studies. Once she has established her sample size and identified participants, they will be asked to complete a series of qualitative and quantitative surveys in attempt to gauge comprehension and response to the health information they receive throughout their pregnancies. Both partners will be questioned and their responses analyzed.

Once her research is complete, Lennon hopes that the findings can be used to better address how men and women receive information during pregnancy and how policy might be developed to support both partners.

“I’d hope to develop an understanding among health care professionals that women didn’t get pregnant by themselves, and they aren’t in this pregnancy alone,” she explained. “It’s really unfair to put all of the burden on that one person, about change. Maybe men and women need different things out of prenatal education.”

Lennon is clearly passionate about health care, and encourages prospective students here in the Keystone province to explore the possibilities that the University of Manitoba’s faculty of nursing holds.

“I’d like people to get a better sense of all the really important things that are happening in the faculty of nursing,” she told the Gradzette.

“I sometimes think we don’t promote ourselves as well in nursing as we should. Take a look at the nursing website, and check out the amazing things that are happening there.”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.