Laura Stachel is a OB/GYN who had a bustling 14 year old medical practice in Berkeley, California serving thousands of patients and delivering healthy babies where there were few complications.
In 2002, Laura suffered from persistent back and arm pain that resulted in a diagnosis of severe degenerating disc disease in her cervical spine. She was told she would have to stop doing surgeries and eventually had to leave her practice. Her life of being a physician and bringing babies into the world came to an end.
After a year of rehabilitation, Laura considered a new vocation. Having a disability gave her, “an opportunity to imagine new possibilities” and she turned her attention towards public health. Laura enrolled in a Maternal Child Health program at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. Sitting for hours in a classroom wasn’t easy but Laura said, having a purpose helped her to heal. She loved being a student again.
Laura’s physical endurance improved and in 2008 she had an opportunity to consult on a global maternal health research project. At that time, half a million women died each year in childbirth, 99% in developing countries. 11% of global maternal deaths were in Northern Nigeria. As part of a research project on maternal mortality, Laura was invited to observe Nigerian obstetric care through a joint research program through UC Berkeley and Ahmadu Bello University. Laura went to Kofan Gayan Hospital, a busy state hospital, serving 1.5 million people and conducting 150 deliveries a month.
Although Laura observed many differences between Kofan Gayan and a typical American hospital, what was most striking were the frequent power outages that left the hospital in the dark. Without electricity for up to 12 hours a day, midwives were forced to work by candlelight or kerosene lanterns, surgeons worked without overhead lighting or electricity and many women were turned away at night when the power was down. When the power was out, so was the hospital. This contributed to many preventable maternal and newborn deaths.
Laura vowed to do something about it. She sent e-mails to her husband, Hal Aronson, describing the inadequate lighting conditions at the hospital. Hal taught solar energy technology in California and immediately focused on solar power as a way to provide electricity to the hospital. When Laura returned home to Berkeley, Hal sketched a design for a solar power system to meet the needs of the maternity ward, labor room, operating room and laboratory.
The project was beginning to take shape but they were in need of funding. Just eleven days after she returned from Nigeria, Laura and Hal entered a campus wide contest at UC Berkeley for a technology offering a social good. They received honorable mention and a $1,000 award. When she called Dr. Muazu, the head of the hospital in Nigeria to say she did not win the contest and have the needed funds, he was unfazed. He said, “You planted a seed, and from this seed, a great tree will grow.”
The funds came soon after.
Hal built a miniature solar system in a suitcase so Laura could demonstrate solar electricity to her colleagues on her first of many return trips to Nigeria. This demonstration kit was met with enthusiasm giving the green light to a larger solar installation. With solar electricity for the operating room, laboratory and maternity ward, the hospital was instantly transformed. They could deliver babies day and night, perform critical surgeries around the clock and provide transfusions using refrigerated blood. Over the next year, maternal deaths dropped by 70%. Lives were being saved.
After the success at the hospital, surrounding health clinics asked Laura for solar power. Laura needed something that could scale. Hal and Laura realized the suitcase-sized demonstration kit could be the perfect solution. They began crafting “Solar Suitcase” by hand, engaging volunteers, and building these in their back yard.
When NY Times writer, Nicholas Kristof wrote about We Care Solar, requests for suitcases came from around the globe. We Care Solar received a significant grant from the MacArthur Foundation to create a Solar Suitcase that could be manufactured at scale. And soon, Solar Suitcases were being supplied to countries around the world.
Despite its success, Laura told me she had no idea where this was going when she went to Nigeria the first time. She had no master plan. She made decisions, one step at a time to address whatever challenge was before her. Laura even said, that if she knew where her new journey was taking her, it would have been intimidating. She certainly never thought when she was lying on her back unable to sit or stand, she would be running a international non profit, speak at the UN and global conferences and receive countless awards for her life-saving work.
With dozens of partners around the world, We Care Solar has equipped 2,500 health centers, has trained over 5,000 health workers, serving more than 1,000,000 mothers and their newborns. We Care Solar has introduced the solar suitcase to 27 countries, with active large programs in 10 countries.
On March 9th 2017, We Care Solar announced that Liberia has become the first country to pledge to “Light Every Birth” at the launch of its global campaign to support healthy childbirth with affordable, accessible and clean solar lighting and electricity. Please sign the Pictition, Light Every Birth , to show your support. For more information about We Care Solar, go to their web site, http://www.wecaresolar.org.