Based on the World Health Organization’s statistics on maternal death, about 800 mothers die during childbirth every day, and nearly all of these deaths (99%) take place in developing countries. Most of these tragic losses of life could be prevented if only the practitioners had access to equipment and facilities. The fact that most of the women who die during childbirth are from countries which lack basic necessities is quite telling of a need which funding can easily address.
But a woman like Laura braved to do more, having seen how a lack of electricity could result in death. She first saw it happen in Nigeria while observing how midwives and doctors deliver babies. When the lights failed to hold up in the middle of the procedure, Laura was horrified. She’s an OB-GYN with over seven years of clinical practice; as a professional, she knows about the importance of good lighting during any medical procedure. The mother’s life hung in the balance, and all she could do was help hold the flashlight.
Laura did not get around to doing social entrepreneurship in Nigeria, as she was there for research as a Ph.D. student of Public Health. But the human being within her was screaming for justice. She could not go home after seeing the plight of mothers in countries which struggle to provide adequate electricity, even to health care facilities.
As destiny would have it, Laura is now married to Hal Aronson, a solar lighting expert who was more than eager to fashion a power system for Laura’s Nigerian colleagues. Described jokingly as “Iron Man’s suitcase” [although it was not designed to impress], it left the Nigerian clinic’s medical staff awestruck. The demand increased quickly, and the couple soon found themselves immersed in humanitarian work.
Laura is now more than just a doctor, as Hal is more than an engineer; they have become game-changers and true heroes, and their good deeds has taken them all over the world. With WE CARE Solar’s Suitcase, the couple is reassured that doctors are always in and ready where they are needed.
Education and Early Medical Practice
Laura Stachel completed her B.A. in Psychology with Highest Honors at Oberlin College in 1980, and then pursued Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She became a full-fledged doctor in 1985. In 1995, she started practicing her specialization as an Obstetrician/Gynecologist at East Bay Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her illustrious medical career took off as she began creating a name in the field of obstetrics/gynecology; in fact, she has become so good that she could facilitate a caesarean birth in only two minutes.
As her reputation grew, Dr. Laura Stachel would face an overwhelming physical challenge that no doctor, even of her caliber, could properly address. One time, while administering a complicated childbirth procedure, she felt terrible pain from her back course through her right hand, and it was too great to dismiss. A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) result showed that degenerating discs in her neck were pressing on particular nerves, which then affected her arms.
With her physical limitations, Dr. Laura could no longer administer childbirths; she couldn’t even sit down for too long. She mourned the end of her career. For two years, she wondered what awaited her as her work as a professional OB-GYN was just about over.
Musings soon led her to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a Master’s in Public Health. Little did she know it would usher a new beginning for her, but this time bigger and much more fulfilling.
Developing the “Solar Suitcase”
In 2008, Laura was invited by her professor to join a research team in Nigeria to determine the cause/s of the high mortality rate of mothers giving birth. She was excited to share what she knew about delivering babies.
At the time, Nigeria had one of the highest childbirth mortality rates in the world. Upon arriving, Laura was shocked by the dilapidation of the clinics and hospitals. There was hardly any privacy in the delivery rooms; worse, they didn’t have electricity. Not having electricity was tantamount to not being able to use necessary equipment, like a blood bank refrigerator.
This meant that if a patient experienced hemorrhage, the doctors had to find blood which matched the patient’s, and the delay often contributed to the patient’s [preventable] death.
While observing a team of Nigerian professionals administering childbirth, the lights suddenly went out. Laura was dumbfounded not to hear any exclamation of distress over losing power; to her horror, the doctors carried on – in total darkness! She volunteered to share her flashlight. As the woman gasped for air in what Laura believed to be a case of eclampsia, she feared that the mother would not survive.
Shaken by the experience, Laura wrote her husband an emphatic e-mail detailing what she had witnessed. Hal Aronson happened to be an engineer who specialized in solar power, so he reassured his wife that he could design a contraption for them and got to work immediately. When Laura returned from her trip, the two collaborated to design a solar-powered blood bank refrigerator, among other basic types of medical equipment. As they awaited funding to realize their initial plan, Laura flew back to Nigeria with a yellow suitcase in tow. She recalled:
“Hal made me a demonstration solar kit to bring on this journey – a suitcase packed with compact solar panels, a control board, a sealed battery, high-efficiency LED lights, headlamps and walkie-talkies.
I unpacked the case in the maternity ward. A doctor flipped the switch and the lights turned on, bringing wide smiles to the hospital staff. The light was bright enough for a delivery or an operating room.
The rechargeable walkie-talkies meant that a surgical team could be assembled in minutes instead of hours, avoiding lengthy searches for doctors and OR technicians on the hospital grounds.” (SOURCE: Maria Shriver)
Launching the “WE CARE Solar”
The solar kit never made it back to the U.S. The medical team in Nigeria was so taken by the contents of the yellow suitcase that they asked Laura to leave it with them. The legend of the “magic suitcase” soon reached other clinics, which also began requesting them to help administer medical procedures at night.
Laura would bring a suitcase or two whenever she returned to the country, and realized that the demonstration kit itself could do wonders. With Hal’s help, she set up “WE CARE Solar.” First, they had volunteers help them assemble the kits, but after receiving funding from the MacArthur Foundation, their non-profit began receiving help from ambassadors of countries in disseminating the kits and teaching how to use them properly. As the technology and design have improved over time, every “Solar Suitcase” contains:
"The system includes high-efficiency LED medical task lighting, a universal cell phone charger, a battery charger for AAA or AA batteries, and outlets for 12V DC devices. The basic system comes with 40 or 80 watts of solar panels, and a 14 amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery. The maternity kit comes with a fetal doppler. An expansion kit is available for utilizing larger batteries." (SOURCE: We Care Solar)
Thanks to grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Starr International Foundation, the University of California’s Blum Center for Developing Economies and the Segal Family Foundation, “WE CARE Solar” has provided over 400 kits in 27 countries worldwide.
Looking back, saying goodbye to her original practice only gave Laura more time to focus on what’s really important, and become extraordinary in a whole new way.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- We Care Solar
- West African Emergency Obstetric Research
- Berkeley Wellness Letter
- UCB School of Public Health
- The Blum Center for Developing Economies
- The MacArthur Foundation
- World Health Organization
- Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research
- Practitioners Group on Energy and Health
- UN Foundation
- World Health Foundation
- Starr International Foundation
- Segal Family Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 1995 - 2002: Served as East Bay Obstetrics and Gynecology Obstetrician/Gynecologist
- 2003: Left private practice to pursue Public Health
- 2009: Co-founded “We Care Solar” with husband
- 2009 - 2012: Served as Associate Director of West African Emergency Obstetric Research for the Bixby Center
- 2009 - 2011: Lectured at the UCB School of Public Health
- 2010 - 2011: Co-investigated emergency obstetric care in Northern Nigerian hospitals
- 2010: Named “Pop!Tech Fellow,” “Global Social Benefit Incubator Fellow” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves Women’s Health Hero”
- 2010: Received “Jefferson Award for Public Service,” UC Berkeley Chancellor's “Award for Civic Engagement” and “Global Social Venture Competition Social Impact Award”
- 2011: Received “Nokia Health Tech Award,” “San Jose Tech Laureate Award” and Elle Magazine Innovative Women’s “Green Award”
- 2011 - 2013: Served as Co-Chair of Practitioners Group on Energy and Health
- 2012: Received “MIT/DOE C3E Award for Energy, Education and Empowerment in the Developing World,” “Oberlin Distinguished Alumni Award” and “UN Association of the East Bay Global Citizens Award”
- 2013: Named a “Hero” by CNN
- Serves on the Editorial Board for the Berkeley Wellness Letter
- Holds an M.D. from University of California, San Francisco
- Holds an M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health from University of California, Berkeley
- Received “Our Bodies, Ourselves Women's Health Hero” award
- Named one of three winners of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Half the Sky” contest
- Won a $25,000 grant from Isha Koach (Women of Strength)
The Huffington Post (Shining a Light on Healthcare Heroes)
Bixby Center (Laura Stachel M.D., M.P.H.)
CNN ('Solar suitcase' saving moms, babies during childbirth)
CNN (Lighting the way for safe childbirth)
We Care Solar (“Philippine Heroes of the Night” by Robin Lim and Laura Stachel)
We Care Solar (About the Solar Suitcase)
Bamboo Telegraph (CNN Hero and Doctor Laura Stachel)
We Care Solar (Our Story)
LinkedIn (Laura Stachel)
Maria Shriver (How I Did It: Laura Stachel, Co-Founder and Executive Director of We Care Solar)
Philippine Star (American CNN Hero attends to 'Yolanda' baby births in the dark)
JWeekly (Power to the people: Berkeley couple brings light to clinics in developing nations)