While performing an emergency cesarean section, a team of doctors suddenly found themselves cloaked in darkness. The hospital had lost its electricity supply. The doctors would be forced to complete their procedure by flashlight.
This was not an unusual turn of events at this Nigerian hospital. But, for visiting researcher Dr. Laura Stachel, the sudden blackout exposed a harsh reality - that all of her skills as an obstetrician-gynecologist could be rendered utterly useless by a lack of light.
According to the U.S. State Department, Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world with 630 women dying for every 100,000 babies born. During her 2008 research trip, Stachel experienced this alarming statistic as she witnessed more medical complications than she had in her entire career in the United States.
In Nigeria, critical and time-sensitive medical procedures are frequently delayed due to unreliable power supplies. Midwives are routinely forced to use makeshift lighting in the form of anything from a kerosene lantern to a faintly glowing cell phone screen in order to help their patients. On this particular day, it was Stachel's own flashlight that provided the illumination needed to save a new mother's life.
This experience propelled Stachel into action. After returning from her trip, with help from her husband and solar energy educator Hal Aronson, Stachel would create a innovative kit capable of supplying light when it is needed most. Her first prototype contained basic and critical items – some solar panels, lights, and walkie-talkies to allow for communication between healthcare workers. But, these items were enough to excite the Nigerian medical community by providing a practical way to increase their ability to help their patients.
Today’s, Stachel's suitcase contains two solar panels connected to high-quality (and energy-efficient) LED lights, a fetal Doppler (to monitor a baby’s heart rate), headlamps, and charging unit for cell phones, batteries, and computers. With a small 12 amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery for energy storage, this kit can provide light for up to 20 hours. It is even designed for use in bigger hospitals, with a modular design that allows for easy expansion.
Over the past four years, this “solar suitcase” has improved patient-care not only in Nigeria, but also in facilities throughout Africa, Asia, and Central American.
Note: Dr. Laura Stachel was recognized for her work in September 2012 with an award at the Women in Clean Energy Symposium, co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy and MIT Energy Initiative. Dr. Stachel has also been named a 2013 CNN Hero.