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Shine a Light: The Suitcase That’s Saving Women’s Lives

What if your carry-on suitcase could save a woman’s life? In the fight against maternal mortality in the developing world, a rugged, portable “Solar Suitcase” is providing reliable electricity to clinics in 17 countries where healthcare workers previously struggled to provide emergency obstetric care by the light of candles, flashlights and mobile phones. The Solar Suitcase powers medical LED lights, headlamps, mobile phones, computers and medical devices.

In this installment of Digital Diversity, obstetrician Laura Stachel, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit WE CARE Solar, talks about the impact of a simple solar solution on emergency obstetrics.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Laura Stachel

November 2011. It’s our ninth day delivering Solar Suitcases to maternal health facilities in Kano and Kaduna states in Nigeria. As we make our way from clinic to hospital, we have been overwhelmed by stories about the consequences of inadequate lighting on childbirth. It has been heartbreaking to hear midwives describe the needless loss of life that has resulted from a simple lack of electricity.

One midwife described her grief at losing a patient who bled to death after a vaginal delivery. The delivery had been challenging, but successful. She had informed the family the joyous news that mother and baby were fine. After covering the mother with a blanket, she went back to caring for the newborn using her flashlight. When she turned to the mother with her light, she realized the woman was in a pool of blood.

“With a torchlight, I can only see one patient at a time,” the midwife lamented. She said that without lighting for the whole room, she hadn’t recognized what was happening. “I would have looked for the source of bleeding, arranged for a blood transfusion…she didn’t have to die.”

When I first traveled to Northern Nigeria in 2008 to study the high rate of maternal mortality in state hospitals, I thought I’d encounter clinicians in need of medical advice. Instead, I found deplorable hospital conditions that impaired obstetric care. Among the challenges were the lack of clean water, equipment and supplies. But most glaring was the lack of reliable electricity. Without adequate power, health workers struggled to provide care. Nighttime deliveries were attended in near darkness, cesarean sections were cancelled or conducted by flashlight, and critically ill patients were sometimes turned away.

 

The Solar Suitcase. Photo: WE CARE Solar

 

My solar educator husband, Hal Aronson, set about designing a stand-alone solar electric system that was easy to deploy, simple to use, and effective for medical settings. The result was a “Solar Suitcase,” a portable, rugged, complete solar electric kit packed with solar panels, a charge controller, batteries, medical LED lights, phone chargers, headlamps, and a fetal monitor.

Healthcare workers using the Solar Suitcase report greater facility and ease in conducting nighttime procedures. Improved lighting allows health workers to identify and treat complications such as obstetric lacerations and hemorrhage, nurses to locate and administer intravenous medication, and emergency Caesarean sections to be performed 24 hours a day. Solar-powered mobile phones allow on-call doctors to be alerted when obstetric emergencies require surgery. With augmentation, the solar suitcase powers blood bank refrigeration, permitting life-saving transfusions to occur without delay.

An estimated 358,000 maternal deaths occur worldwide. “The majority of maternal deaths occur during or immediately after childbirth,” states the 2011 United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report. Common medical causes include bleeding, high blood pressure, prolonged and obstructed labour, and infections. Although most obstetric complications are not predictable, the majority can be treated by skilled health providers. Reducing childbirth deaths depends, in part, on providing adequate emergency obstetric care. However, a lack of health facility power translates to an inability to perform life-saving care.

 

The Solar Suitcase at work in a primary health care centre in Liberia. Photo: WE CARE Solar

 

At Makarfi hospital in Nigeria, I interviewed another midwife who told me that a few days before my arrival the hospital had referred out a mother with obstructed labour. The woman needed a c/section and, as medical conditions go in Nigeria, the health care odds seemed to be in her favor – a surgical team was available and the operating room had equipment and supplies. But the public power supply was down, the generator was without fuel, and it was 8pm – too dark to operate. The midwife was forced to prepare the patient for a transfer to another hospital, 40 kilometers away. On the way to the hospital, the patient died.

 

Grandmother and child in Nigerian labour/delivery room. Photo: WE CARE Solar

 

When we installed two Solar Suitcases in her delivery room and operating theatre, she was elated. “We will never refer patients out of the hospital for c/sections,” she exclaimed. “Now I won’t have to work by candlelight,” another midwife said with relief. The Solar Suitcase provides hope for these health workers, and a chance to provide better care.

While so many of us take for granted that light is always available, it is painfully clear that much of the world does not have this luxury. “You have given us the greatest gift possible,” an operating room nurse explains, “and with this we will save many lives.”

Laura Stachel is an obstetrician-gynecologist and the Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE CARE Solar, a non-profit working to save maternal and newborn lives utilizing solar powered solutions. She holds an M.D. from University of California, San Francisco and an M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health from University of California, Berkeley. Since 2008, she has been conducting research on maternal mortality in the developing world. Laura is the Associate Director of Emergency Obstetric Research in West Africa for the Bixby Center for Population Health and Sustainability and is conducting research in northern Nigeria. Laura co-chairs an international working group on Energy and Health for the UN Foundation.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. [...] Solar suitcases provide electricity and light in maternity wards This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink. « Melinda Gates answers your questions, Ctd. Negative Impacts of Male Involvement in PMTCT? » [...]

  2. [...] This lack of access has profound effects on people’s lives. Collection of firewood can take several hours a day and the respiratory diseases brought on from the smoke from cooking fires are responsible for more deaths in the world each year than malaria. Both of these burdens fall disproportionately on women and children. Lack of electricity means no way to cool and preserve food, no TV, no phones, no light for children to study by, no refrigeration for vaccines in health posts and no light by which to provide maternity services after dark. [...]

  3. [...] This article originally appeared on National Geographic.com [...]

  4. [...] found deplorable hospital conditions that impaired obstetric care,” Stachel, an ob-gyn, told National Geographic. “Among the challenges were the lack of clean water, equipment and supplies. But most glaring [...]

  5. [...] found deplorable hospital conditions that impaired obstetric care,” Stachel, an ob-gyn, told National Geographic. “Among the challenges were the lack of clean water, equipment and supplies. But most glaring [...]

  6. [...] found deplorable hospital conditions that impaired obstetric care,” Stachel, an ob-gyn, told National Geographic. “Among the challenges were the lack of clean water, equipment and supplies. But most glaring [...]

  7. Latest Shine A Light News | Stones Music
    January 30, 2012, 7:03 am

    [...] Shine a Light: The Suitcase That's Saving Women's Lives The Solar Suitcase powers medical LED lights, headlamps, mobile phones, computers and medical devices. In this installment of “Mobile Message”, obstetrician Laura Stachel, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit WE CARE Solar, … Read more on National Geographic [...]

  8. MM
    January 25, 2012, 2:26 am

    Great work!!

  9. Laura Stachel
    Berkeley, California
    January 22, 2012, 1:00 pm

    For those of you wanting to learn more about the solar suitcase, or wanting to light up a specific clinic, please use our website http://www.wecaresolar.org and click on the “Contact Us” form. I head to Sierra Leone at the end of this week, and will be reporting on maternal health conditions there. Sadly, this country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

  10. Jane Taylor
    Haiti
    January 22, 2012, 8:27 am

    How do we go about getting one for MamaBabyHaiti outside of CapHaitian?

    • Ken Banks
      January 22, 2012, 12:07 pm

      Hi Jane. There should be contact information on the WE CARE solar website. I’d try going that route. Ken

  11. Mary dan O.
    Nigeria
    January 21, 2012, 8:33 am

    I was jus thinkin about how to get solar power for my house before i read this.may God bles you all for every life you save through this innovation.

  12. [...] An expansion kit is available for utilizing larger batteries.National Geographic Daily News has more on the Solar Suitcase here, including additional pictures.Share Category: Solar power | Leave a [...]

  13. ryan edwin tuazon
    phillipines,laguna,sanpablo 4000
    January 19, 2012, 12:57 am

    wow that amazing fan in The Solar Suitcase

  14. Jane Ortega
    Philippines
    January 18, 2012, 9:32 pm

    More power to you Laura and to your husband, the world needs people like you. I hope it can reach remote areas in the Philippines as well. Well done to all involved.

  15. Diane. Stelling
    Lake Forest, California
    January 18, 2012, 8:25 pm

    as a retired nurse, living in the interior bush in Liberia, in the 70’s, PTL for the solar suitcase. Currently, our mission is going to help train midwives & build clinics. Will keep this solar suitcase in mind when we are ready! Great article!

  16. [...] In the fight against maternal mortality in the developing world, a rugged, portable “Solar Suitcase” is providing reliable electricity to clinics in 17 countries. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/… [...]

  17. Nicola James
    Rice Lake Ontario
    January 18, 2012, 9:15 am

    This is amazing and so simple. Harnessing the sun has always been the way.

  18. tina armstrong-ogbonna
    LAGOS,NIGEERIA
    January 17, 2012, 10:12 pm

    Thank you for illuminating our health centres and saving lives that would have been lost.you are a blessing and i do sincerely appreciate you.

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  22. Suitcase Reviews
    America
    January 12, 2012, 4:07 pm

    Cracking suitcase, well done to all involved

  23. Richard McDonald
    Bukavu, D R CONGO, Africa
    January 12, 2012, 3:23 pm

    We love these kinds of Tech solutions for places like DRC that really need them !

    Great Job ! Thanks for Sharing…

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    January 12, 2012, 2:30 pm

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