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'Solar Suitcase' Aids Doctors in Developing World

KANO, Nigeria - The World Health Organization says the number of women who die from pregnancy and childbirth has been cut in half over the last 20 years. While that is an encouraging development, about half a million mothers still die every year. A California doctor and her husband are helping to save women's lives with an ingenious invention.

Every expectant mother wants a healthy baby. But many clinics in sub-Saharan Africa lack the basics that doctors and nurses need to ensure safe deliveries for parent and child. One of these basics is reliable electricity.

"It's not easy [to help our patients]. Taking deliveries. [Delivering] a baby without lights. We have to look for lamps or anything. The patient can be bleeding, anything can happen… And there is no way, no light, nothing to see what is going on - what is happening to the patient," said Zainab Yusuf, a clinic worker in Kano.

American obstetrician Laura Stachel was appalled by the lack of light when she first visited Africa in 2008.

"In the middle of the night there was no light whatsoever and they were using kerosene lanterns to try and examine patients with severe medical conditions," explained Stachel. "I was watching a C-section where the lights went out and the doctors had to finish by my own flashlight."

Stachel turned to her husband to help her come up with a solution.

"My husband is a solar educator and an innovator," Stachel noted. "And he said, 'Laura, when you come back, maybe we can think of something at least help the electricity situation in the hospital.' So together, when I got back from Nigeria, we thought about what we could to make a difference in this one hospital. And we thought we could use solar electricity because the sun is a free source of fuel."

They began with large solar panels put together in their backyard. Today, suitcase-sized kits provide the "power of light" to almost 200 clinics around the world.

"I asked my husband if he could put together a kit that was small enough for me to fit in my suitcase so I could slip through customs easily," Stachel recalled. "And I also didn't know a lot about solar, so I said could you make this easy enough for me to use. So 'put together everything that you can so I can just put together a couple of wires at the end and show them what to do.'"

On a recent training trip to Nigeria, Stachel's suitcase of reliable power was well-received:

"We will be very happy, and everything will go on smoothly," said clinic worker Yusuf.
Despite this success, Dr. Stachel says adequate lighting and reliable electricity are only the beginning of the story. Beyond that, she says it's necessary to make sure that health workers also have the right education, tools and support to do their jobs.