One night, Dr. Laura Stachel was doing a Ceasarean section when she felt a searing pain go down her back. Diagnosed with degenerating discs, Stachel was forced to give up her work as an OB-GYN and decided instead to study public health. On a research trip to Nigeria, she witnessed shocking conditions at a maternity ward, largely because of the lack of reliable electricity. In response, she invented a “solar suitcase” which has lit millions of births all over the world. Listen to her inspiring story.
Read more about Laura Stachel.
SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: ...featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.
LAURA: What was happening was that the bones in my spine were actually pinching the nerves to my arms, and so it was very, very painful to use my arms
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams
COLLEEN: Imagine for a second that you have a successful career that you have spent YEARS building, that you truly enjoy, when it is suddenly
COLLEEN: Taken from you
LAURA: One night I was doing a Ceasarean section that was quite challenging, and all of a sudden I felt a searing pain go down my back
COLLEEN: That’s Dr. Laura Stachel and today
COLLEEN: we are going to share her incredible story, about getting knocked down…
LAURA: I was very active, and everything stopped.
SUE: But then getting back up…
COLLEEN: And doing something that truly has changed lives --
SUE: and saved lives --
COLLEEN: In nearly 30 developing countries around the world.
LAURA: We're bringing a reliable, sustainable source of electricity packaged in a small suitcase. It's called the Solar Suitcase.
COLLEEN: In this podcast, we’ll talk to this former OB-GYN about the global issue of maternal mortality
SUE: And hear how she came to find herself tackling the problem, head on.
COLLEEN: Stick around
** Musical interlude **
LAURA: Around the world, 300,000 women are dying every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. They are delivering in conditions that would be unimaginable to most of us.
COLLEEN: We want to share a clip from the field, of a baby who’s just been born
SUE: I believe this was recorded in Nigeria -- but it could be Sierra Leone or Nepal or almost any poor country in the world.
SOT: of baby crying or midwives working
COLLEEN: This baby is one of the lucky ones - the delivery has been successful and the lights in the clinic are still on - but even as Laura talks, the entire room suddenly becomes pitch dark as they lose power - listen closely
LAURA (SOT): There you go, you’re getting all wrapped up. So this baby is about five minutes old. Yeah, welcome to the world, little one.
LAURA: And the lights just went out - there’s no more light
COLLEEN: What just happened is, unfortunately, typical in many maternity wards in developing nations
SUE: Where power is intermittent
LAURA: Imagine for a moment what it would be like to be at a hospital without electricity. It means that midwives were trying to perform life-saving care using candlelight or kerosene lanterns. It meant that doctors were rushing to do C-sections during daytime hours when they could use the ambient light of windows because they didn't know if they would have power through the night to actually conduct a C-section.
COLLEEN: In some cases, cellphones are the only sources of light….
SUE: ...and midwives hold the cellphones between their teeth so they can keep their hands free.
LAURA: One midwife told me a story that she was in a health center where there was not even a candle. She was doing a difficult delivery, a breach delivery where the baby's coming buttocks first. She couldn't see what she was doing, so she asked her assistant to take a match and put a flame to the calendar on the wall. As it burned, she finished the delivery by the glow of that burning calendar.
SUE (FROM TAPE): Wow
LAURA : The stories that I've heard have been astounding to me.
COLLEEN: But let’s back up here for a second...and explain how Laura, who was much more used to state-of-the-art medical facilities in the U.S., came to be in Africa
LAURA: I entered medical school in 1981 and finished in 1985.
SUE: Laura did her residency at the University of California San Francisco
LAURA: My first job after that was to work in a large public hospital doing reproductive health services.
COLLEEN: Then she got invited to join a progressive group of midwives, doctors and nurses
LAURA: who had come together to create a holistic practice that was in a large Victorian building not far from here.
SUE: Laura loved it
LAURA: It was really right up my alley about being very patient centered, actually family centered. We would spend hours and hours with people in labor. I did that for a number of years.
COLLEEN: When we spoke to Laura, I got the feeling she would have happily done this work for the rest of her life
SUE: I think that was her plan
COLLEEN: But fate intervened.
LAURA: I felt a searing pain go down my back. I had been having some low back pain for a while
COLLEEN: She had an MRI
LAURA: and it said that I had degenerating discs in the spine of my back. They said my back looked like one of a 70-year-old woman, and I was only 40.
COLLEEN: And that’s when everything in Laura’s world completely changed.
LAURA: Basically, I had this incredibly busy life with waiting lists of patients to see me and doing deliveries through the night.
COLLEEN: And then
LAURA: everything stopped.
SUE: The doctors told her
LAURA: You shouldn't go back until you are able to go for a week without having any pain." That week-
Sue (FROM TAPE): You must've been devastated.
LAURA: That week never came. I continued to have pain, but I was doing physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, trying to see whether or not I could regain full functioning.
COLLEEN: After about a year, Laura started to get better….
SUE: But delivering babies was out of the question.
LAURA: And soon the doctors told me, "You should stop doing medicine altogether.”
COLLEEN: This is where a lesser person might have stayed on the couch - I think that’s what I would have done.
SUE: Me too probably. But Not Laura
LAURA: I enrolled in graduate school in public health at the University of California Berkeley, and I entered a program for maternal and child healthcare.
COLLEEN: She decided to go back to school.
SUE: That allowed her to…
LAURA: move my mindset from being about helping individuals in a clinic to thinking about what are the issues that are facing women, first in United Statesbut then globally, what are the issues.
COLLEEN: A Berkeley research mission brought her to Northern Nigeria in 2008. Here’s a clip from the PBS Newshour
MAN: NIGERIA has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world….tens of thousands die there each year while giving birth
LAURA: I was told not to study a lot before I went. I was told, "Just go there. You're already a doctor, and just sit and observe and see what you can see."
SOT of hospital/midwives/babies
LAURA: I spent 10 to 14 hours a day just watching care in a labor and delivery room
COLLEEN: What she saw shocked her.
COLLEEN: One particular night remains seared in Laura’s memory
SUE: Midwives were trying to save a pregnant woman who had eclampsia, a condition where high blood pressure causes seizures.
LAURA : This woman had already lost blood flow to her lungs. She was rattling with each breath. Her kidneys were no longer functioning.
COLLEEN: Laura sat in the corner of the room…
SUE: ...in the pitch darkness….
LAURA: Why am I bearing witness? Why am I here right now? It occurred to me that these women are basically dying in silence, that nobody's telling their story, and that maybe the reason that I was there was because I do have access to resources and I could tell their story.
COLLEEN: Laura carried the memory of that terrible night home with her.
SUE: We’ll tell you what she decided to do next, after this brief break
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inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you like what you’re hearing, check out our podcast featuring Celeste Mergens of Days for Girls, whose social enterprise provides reusable sanitary pads so girls can attend school. “Stigma, health, shame, lack of access to education -- just a few of the prices women pay because we haven't been able to talk about something we're ashamed to say.” It’s Episode 30: All ABout Those Periods
COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Laura Stachel, who lost the ability to work as an OB-GYN but found a new calling
SUE: A world away from the clean, well- equipped and lit hospitals of San Francisco
LAURA: My husband, who had always been a real advocate for solar power, said, "Laura, when you get home from Nigeria, let's discuss how to help the hospital.”
COLLEEN: Again, here is where fate sort of steps right in. Laura’s husband --
SUE: Hal Aaronson
COLLEEN: ...a guy she randomly met through an online dating service, back in 1999
LAURA: It was complete chemistry from the moment we met.
COLLEEN: Hal happens to be an environmental sociologist with an interest in solar energy
Sue (From tape): So this is where he would tinker? This space is where he would-
Laura: Yeah. [09:42:21] We're in his workshop right now, and this is where he does a lot of his experiments and designing things and do experiments.
LAURA: With my husband's help, we designed a solar electric system targeting four parts of the hospital, targeting a blood bank refrigerator, which was a solar-powered blood bank refrigerator, the labor and delivery room, the maternity ward, and the operating theater.
COLLEEN: This was a giant, ambitious project that required a huge amount of money
SUE: So Laura wrote up a proposal outlining a plan…
COLLEEN: and entered a competition...
LAURA: at UC Berkeley 11 days after I came back from Nigeria that was looking at technology solutions for social good.
COLLEEN: It’s an annual contest called Big Ideas at Berkeley - here’s a promo for it...first prize was about $12,000
WOMAN’S VOICE: You’re not just a student, you’re a visionary, an entrepreneur, a designer, an innovator.
LAURA: I was just so sure that we would have to win this because we had to bring solar power to the hospital.
COLLEEN: She didn’t win.
LAURA: We got honorable mention, which came with a prize of $1,000. I should've been excited, but I still have a photo from just the time I'm looking at the award thinking, how am I going to do the hospital with only $1000?
COLLEEN: Here’s where fate yet again steps in…
SUE: I think this is the third time now
LAURA: I called up the head of the hospital, Dr. Muazu…
COLLEEN: And told him the bad news
LAURA: He said, "Don't worry, Laura. You planted a seed, and from that seed a great tree will grow."
SUE: THat night, one of the judges called Laura
COLLEEN: And told her he was impressed with the idea and wondered…
LAURA: “How much money do you need?"
COLLEEN: She immediately doubled the amount the competition was for…
Sue: How much did you tell him you needed?
Laura (from tape): $25,000.
Sue: Awesome. Terrific.
LAURA: Within three weeks he had found funding from the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, and we were on our way.
** musical interlude **
COLLEEN: So here’s where our story takes one more interesting turn…
SUE: That’s right. So Hal designed a small pre-wired kit…
LAURA: that I could pack in my suitcase and basically take back with me as a demonstration kit to show the doctors, "Here's what we're thinking. These are the kind of lights we're thinking about. We're going to bring walkie talkies. What do you think?"
COLLEEN: Size was an issue
LAURA: And so he had to make it small enough that I could smuggle it through customs in Nigeria, and that's how we started out making a suitcase-size system.
COLLEEN: And then much to Laura’s surprise
SUE: When she unpacked the demonstration kit
LAURA: the doctors not only appreciated it, they said, "Can you leave this here?" I said, "No, no, no. This isn't what we're leaving you. We're going to be bringing in a much larger solar electric system." They said, "You don't understand. This could help us save lives right now."
COLLEEN: She left the kit behind.
SUE: And today…
COLLEEN: Nearly a decade later…
SUE: What was once a demonstration kit has become We Care Solar’s bright yellow signature suitcase
LAURA: It has lighting. It has power for communication devices. It has a fetal monitor.
SOT: This is a solar panel that fits inside the solar suitcase.
Laura: It has everything that's needed by midwives and doctors to be able to perform care around the clock.
COLLEEN: Laura works with partners on the ground to install the system and train hospital workers on how to use and repair it.
SOT: And this is the plug we usually use.
SUE: It’s provided critical lighting for deliveries in more than 3,500 health centers around the world.
COLLEEN: And just to give you an example of how important the Solar Suitcase is to healthcare workers…
SUE: Here is audio from a Facebook video we have, after Hal and Laura present the system to a community in Uganda
COLLEEN: Hal is holding the solar panel up in the air while all around him, nurses and staff are dancing and singing and laughing
LAURA: I've had the luxury of being able to see the transformation that happens between seeing a health center in darkness and seeing what happens in light.
SOT of applause
MARISKA HARGITAY: It is my honor to present CNN Hero Dr.Laura Stachel
COLLEEN: That’s actress Mariska Hargitay, introducing Laura at the 2013 CNN Heroes ceremony
MARISKA: Countless lives have been saved because she got up and brought a little light to where it’s been dark for far too long
COLLEEN: Laura has won numerous awards for her work … ‘
SUE: including a major grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which she used to hire an engineer and manufacture the suitcase at a factory near San Francisco.
SOT OF Laura talking to engineer
LAURA: Right now we're funded by a combination of family foundations, large foundations, and larger corporations.
COLLEEN: When we last spoke to Laura she had a 12-person staff and $5 million annual budget.
SUE: While she still suffers pain in her back
COLLEEN: She told me she has an unusual way of sitting on an airplane, that involved curling into the fetal position…
SUE: She says her work has provided more than enough reason to keep on going…
LAURA: I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world. (PICK UP) No woman should die giving life. We Care Solar is changing that.
COLLEEN: We thank Laura Stachel from We Care Solar for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening…
COLLEEN: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org -- or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Jerry Risius. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.