Laura Stachel practiced as an obstetrician-gynecologist for over a decade before a back condition made it impossible for her to perform surgery and deliver babies. Some doctors in that situation might opt to simply ditch surgery and continue practicing. Stachel decided to light up the developing world.
After returning to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley to study public policy, Stachel was invited in 2008 to join a collaborative research project on maternal mortality in Nigeria—a country that accounts for 10% of all maternal deaths worldwide. After two weeks of observation, Stachel realized that the real problem was the lack of light. "I witnessed deliveries by kerosene lantern, nursing care by candlelight, and was present at a C-section when the lights went out. I saw women who died when blood transfusions were delayed (due to lack of blood banking) and stillbirths that occurred when doctors could not be located for emergency C-sections," she explains in an email.
So Stachel came home and started working on a solution with her husband, Hal Aronson, a renewable energy educator. The pair came up with WE CARE Solar, a nonprofit that builds rugged suitcase-sized solar systems for health clinics.
Originally, Aronson designed an almost 1 kilowatt solar system (enough to keep lights and infrastructure on during power outages) for Nigeria’s large state hospital. Then a clinic director asked Stachel why she was only helping the hospital when the clinic was delivering babies in the dark. Aronson and Stachel decided to build a scaled-down, portable version. "The Solar Suitcase was our attempt to provide a portable, easy-to-use and deploy solar electric system to health faciltiies caring for mothers and infants," she says.
WE CARE Solar first built its systems by hand; now the nonprofit has a manufacturable design that has been deployed in nearly 200 clinics in 17 countries, including Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and South Sudan. The $1,500 suitcases, which are funded by foundations and other donors, each contain LED medical task lighting, a universal cell phone charger, a battery charger, outlets, 40 or 80 watts of solar panels (depending on needs), and a lead-acid battery. An expansion kit with larger batteries is also available.
The suitcase has already made a difference in a number of emergency situations. Stachel recalls the story of a Ugandan midwife, Esther Madudu, who was able to resuscitate a preterm infant and treat it for post-partum hemorrhage on the night the Solar Suitcase was installed. Patients in Northern Nigeria nicknamed the suitcase the “magic box.”
Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Dr. Jacques Sebisaho, the founder of health care organization Amani Global Works. On a recent trip to the island of Idjwi in the Congo, Sebisaho used the Solar Suitcase to deliver twins—and then discovered there was a cholera outbreak on the island. The doctor set up an outdoor infirmary (lit up at night by the suitcase) and went to work treating patients. For the first time in Idjwi’s history, no one died during the outbreak (the area usually loses 50% of cholera victims). The reason: 80% of all cholera deaths generally happen at night.
"The cholera outbreak is a huge thing because that’s when you have many patients who need emergency care, but we use it for other situations," says Sebisaho. "We’ll for sure use it in the next few years."