A Life-Saving Suitcase Leaves a Lasting Impact

First Republic Bank

Approximately 300,000 health clinics worldwide don't have reliable electricity and therefore don't have reliable lighting once darkness falls. In these instances, practitioners are forced to rely upon candles, kerosene lanterns and cell phone light to provide emergency labor and delivery care for pregnant women.


“I never expected to be a social innovator in the developing world, let alone an advocate for solar energy for maternal health care."


It’s hard to think that a yellow suitcase could spawn a lasting impact around the world, but this is the case for small Berkeley based nonprofit, We Care Solar. Founded by First Republic client, Dr. Laura Stachel and her husband, solar educator and innovator Hal Aronson, the portable “Solar Suitcase” produces solar-powered electricity which generates light for hundreds of developing health clinics in 25 countries.

Becoming an innovator was not part of Stachel’s grand plan, but a chance chain of events put her on a momentous path.

In 2002, after fourteen years practicing as an obstetrician, Dr. Stachel was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease in her cervical spine, forcing her to leave her practice. Making the best of what she considered a devastating setback, Stachel enrolled at the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley. While in graduate school, she embarked on a research project in Nigeria to explore why women were dying in childbirth at such high rates. At that time, women in Nigeria faced a 1 in 22 lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy complications.

What she found stunned her: a major hospital with only sporadic access to electricity. Stachel witnessed midwives delivering babies in near-darkness, doctors unable to use diagnostic and surgical equipment, and women turned away from hospitals when the power was down. The consequences were tragic, and many mothers and infants were lost.

“I never expected to be a social innovator in the developing world, let alone an advocate for solar energy for maternal health care,” said Stachel. “But as I witnessed women struggling to survive childbirth in Nigeria, and health workers trying their best to provide care in darkened maternity wards, I knew I couldn’t turn my back on this problem,” she said.

An estimated 280,000 women lose their lives to pregnancy complications each year, and in Nigeria, Stachel was faced with the harsh reality that an untimely power cut can mean the difference between life and death.
 
 “I saw more complications than I'd seen in my entire career," said Stachel. "During cesarean sections, the lights would go out and I literally watched the doctors finish by the light of my own flashlight."

Stachel saw an opportunity to combine her own expertise as a doctor with her husband’s knowledge of solar electricity, and they designed the Solar Suitcase which includes solar panels, a battery, and LED lights. The solar panels convert sunlight to electricity, which is stored in the battery and the battery powers the LED lights, as well as cell phones for communication, fetal monitors, and in some cases, blood bank refrigerators.

With the Solar Suitcase, midwives and doctors are able to provide emergency obstetric care for mothers and babies through the night. Patients are no longer turned away from health centers, and many lives are being saved.

The initiative has been widely successful and the worldwide requests for Solar Suitcases are now coming in on a daily basis. To support the demand, Stachel hopes to expand the electrification of health clinics through a $250,000 CNN Hero of the Year prize, which she has been nominated for in recognition of her work.

The prize money would be injected into sending out solar power systems, providing in-country training on how to optimize and maintain the solar suitcase, and advancing the development of high efficiency lights and batteries in the Solar Suitcase.

The 2013 CNN Hero of the Year will be awarded to the Top 10 Hero that generates the most votes. Supporters can vote every day and voting continues through November 17 at http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/2013.heroes/laura.stachel.html.