Rather than dying of rare diseases, “pregnant women In hospitals around the world are dying of things we already know how to treat," said obstetrician Dr. Laura Stachel.
“I can’t go on with my life and not work on this. I had no idea how bad it was, and many others didn’t know either. I feel it is my job to become the voice for these women, because this kind of situation shouldn’t be allowed.”
I realized that all my years of clinical experience were useless in a situation where there was no light to perform a delivery or surgery, and no phone system to call a skilled doctor.
Dr. Stachel found that hospitals in Africa were failing to treat women in dire need of care because they lacked lights, secure communications, and power, so she and her husband created a portable solar electric suitcase with high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and walkie-talkies.
Dr. Stachel and her husband Hal Aronson traveled to northern Nigeria in March 2008 to lead an investigation of emergency obstetric care. She discovered that state hospitals face challenges including inadequate staffing, scarce supplies, and deficient hospital infrastructure—notably, sporadic electricity and a lack of a telephone system to reach hospital personnel.
“I was helping conduct an emergency cesarean section in a Nigerian state hospital," she said. "All the lights in the operating room went out, and the doctors needed to finish the surgery by the beam of our flashlight.
“I realized that all my years of clinical experience were useless in a situation where there was no light to perform a delivery or surgery, and no phone system to call a skilled doctor. During the next week, I saw time and time again how a lack of basic infrastructure impaired the delivery of safe and timely care.”
Dr. Stachel contacted her husband, a solar technology trainer, and they brainstormed ways to address the challenges she witnessed. Dr. Stachel wanted to build a solar device that was discrete and wouldn’t have to be declared when going through Nigerian customs. The solution was a portable solar electric system in a small suitcase, prewired with high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and walkie-talkies.
“The Nigerian hospital staff says that they are no longer afraid to go to work at night, and they are more motivated because they have light,” Dr. Stachel said. She and Aronson co-founded the organization WE CARE Solar to produce solar suitcases.
“This has really changed their attitude toward their jobs," Dr. Stachel said. "The hospital that received the first solar electric installation had a 16 percent increase in obstetric admissions after the installation, and the staff don't need to send away patients who need emergency procedures at night.”
The solar suitcases, which are largely assembled in Dr. Stachel’s home, cost about $1,000 each. While they have been getting help with the assembly from a group of high school students, each suitcase is checked and evaluated by Dr. Stachel and Aronson before it is sent to the field.
To add even more live-saving potential to the system, Villanova University has applied for funding to develop a suctioning machine that could work with the solar suitcase and an oxygen-generating machine that could also be used with the 12-volt direct current system that Dr. Stachel and Aronson devised. These devices could aid in neonatal resuscitation, as well as maternal health.
Dr. Stachel has seen that the solar suitcases help to address the dire medical conditions confronting many women arriving at Nigerian hospitals because of “three delays”: a delay in deciding to seek appropriate medical help for an obstetric emergency; a delay in reaching an appropriate medical facility, often due to a lack of transportation; and a delay in receiving adequate care when a facility is reached.
“Most women in Nigeria will show up at a hospital only if something is really, really wrong," Dr. Stachel said. "Every single patient I’ve seen had a complication.
“And if the hospital doesn’t have electricity, or the staff can’t reach the doctors for hours, or they couldn’t do blood transfusions because of the lack of electricity, those women’s lives are further at risk.”
Dr. Stachel knows that light and electricity aren’t the only problems, but they are among the critical factors contributing to life-threatening delays in obstetric care: a lack of reliable lighting, the failure to locate doctors in a timely manner, and the inability to utilize critical medical devices that rely on electricity.
Twenty-five solar suitcases are currently in use in the field, and ultimately, Dr. Stachel hopes to be able to train a cadre of solar technicians to first repair and eventually make these suitcases in their own country. “We think that by training people to make these kits, we are empowering them to use the suitcases for health care, education, and entrepreneurial activities," she said. "By increasing the livelihood of community members, we can also help take people out of poverty and improve the health of the whole community.”