Saving Mothers With Laura Stachel 

The Berkeley doctor electrifies African hospitals.

To most of us, the phrase "died in childbirth" is a creepily quaint remnant of centuries past. In much of Africa, it remains all too real. "Maternal mortality is defined as the death of a woman within 42 days of being pregnant," said Laura Stachel, a Berkeley physician who left private practice in 2002 and later earned a doctorate from UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "This includes deaths during pregnancy or within 42 days of a pregnancy termination." In the United States, the maternal mortality ratio is 17 per 100,000 live births. "In parts of Nigeria in which I work," Stachel said, "the number is 1,500 to 3,000 per 100,000 live births. So imagine that it is one hundred times riskier to give birth in rural Nigeria than in the US."

While studying maternal and child health in Africa as part of her doctorate work in 2008, Stachel was horrified to see women and babies dying for lack of the most basic resource: electricity, which is sporadic at best in medical facilities throughout Africa, even in its major cities.

"Without lights, deliveries are conducted in suboptimal conditions, complications may not be identified promptly, and surgeries are delayed or canceled," she said. "Without a good communication system, surgeons may not be reached in a timely manner, and patients can wait for hours or can be sent away from a hospital to seek care elsewhere when the medical team cannot be assembled. I also saw women die from lack of transfusions.

"I felt that these women were helpless and had no voice," Stachel said. "They were powerless, literally and figuratively."

Back in Berkeley, she founded WE CARE Solar, a nonprofit whose first project was to outfit a Nigerian hospital with its own specially designed emergency obstetric photovoltaic system. Installed in 2009, the system now powers the hospital's lighting, medical equipment, blood-bank refrigerator, and communication equipment.

"I felt like someone had to take a stand for these voiceless women. ... And I wanted my colleagues in Nigeria to know that people did care about their working conditions," said Stachel, who is the teatime keynote speaker at "Mother," an International Women's Day gala in the Great Hall of International House (2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley) on Tuesday, March 8. The event also includes a poetry reading, live music, wine reception, and art exhibition.

Aided by benefactors such as the Blum Center for Developing Economies, UC Berkeley Big Ideas, and the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability, as well as by private donations, WE CARE — an acronym for Women's Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity — also provides hospitals with "solar suitcases" — ordinary suitcases containing portable solar electric systems that can activate LED lighting and charge walkie-talkies and cell phones, among other capabilities. The easily transported, durable, low-cost suitcases have been sent to nine countries since 2009. This month, Stachel and two WE CARE engineers are heading for Liberia to power hospitals at the request of the World Health Organization. 2 p.m. for lecture (art show runs from noon-7 p.m.; reception 5-7 p.m.); $5-$10 for lecture (art show and reception are free). IHouse.Berkeley.edu

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