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American CNN Hero attends to 'Yolanda' baby births in the dark

American obstetrician and CNN Hero Laura Stachel shows Solar Suitcases sent to maternity facilities in rural areas in about 20 developing countries that do not have electricity. Recently, Stachel offered several of the suitcases to equip midwives forced to deliver babies in the dark after Philippine towns were cut off from power due Super-typhoon Yolanda's rage in November. We Care Solar

MANILA, Philippines - American doctor and CNN Hero Laura Stachel carried yellow, plastic suitcases as her "modest" contribution in unburdening communities in the Visayas devastated by one of history's most destructive calamities.

Inside the suitcases labeled "We Care Solar" are 40-watt panels channeling the sun's energy, a 14-amp battery, a lighting system, cables for charging cellphones and a fetal monitor to check on the life inside a mother's womb.

Stachel seemed ever-poised to tell why she does what she does: Helping doctors and nurses bring forth children in rural areas in the developing world not blessed with electricity and lighting to aid in the procedure.

"About 300,000 women die in childbirth (yearly). So something we consider as a joy to be celebrated is a life-threatening event ... Our goal is to try and support the health workers that are saving the lives of women, saving the lives of newborns, by providing something that's considered absolutely essential, which is the electricity and the lighting to do modern healthcare.," she told Philstar.com.

"The Solar Suitcase has travelled on airplanes, cars, trucks, jeeps, motorcycle, donkey, canoe, and backpack...but this is the first time it travelled by Philippine tricycle," Stachel's group We Care Solar posted on its Facebook page.

Moved by the stories of survival and hope after Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) ravaged the country, Stachel decided to play her part in the delivery of tens of thousands of babies in disaster areas this month.

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Related: 12,000 babies to be born in disaster areas next month

"I was upset and heartbroken about everything I was reading about Haiyan," Stachel confessed.

Stachel initially sent a suitcase through Filipino businessman Jaime "Jim" Ayala, whom she met in the United States before the tragedy. Ayala, chairman of solar energy firm Stiftung Solarenergie, also heads a foundation that harnesses the sun's power to aid livelihood in far-flung areas.

"We went to visit key (typhoon-ravaged) municipalities. And one of the things we found is that health centers were operating without power. They don't have roofs, the centers are partially destroyed ... but there women giving birth," Ayala told Philstar.com, describing the "peak season" for deliveries around this time in the country.

The two, having complementary advocacies, with another CNN Hero and midwife Robin Lim, eventually decided to work together to provide light to dark delivery rooms in devastated zones--and save lives.

"We already planted the seeds before Haiyan happened, but I can say that Haiyan watered the soil," Stachel explained.

Stachel teaches a midwife and her son how to set up and operate a Solar Suitcase.

Stachel described the sorry situation in many health centers in Bohol, Leyte, Cebu and Iloilo. Midwives they encountered also recounted stories of their experience surviving the violent, 300 kilometer per hour winds of the super typhoon that violently blew seawater into land.

A medical practitioner had to deliver a baby during the onslaught of the deadly typhoon and the raging water surge that swept across a town in Leyte, Stachel said. The health workers tried to deliver a baby while water was rising from their knees and some even saw roofs being blown off during a procedure.

"(Midwives) have had their homes broken, they've lost people they love. You see people in highly stressful situations ... But they were so dedicated, people were working during Yolanda. Nobody was leaving from their patients' side," Stachel added, describing the conditions of midwives in Cebu and Tacloban.

In Bohol, flames ate up a maternity center after a candle used for childbirth during a lasting, recurrent black-out set a curtain aflame overnight.

"They had a candle for a woman laying in labor ... I don't want anyone in the health center to have to rely on candles, which are also not good lighting. If you imagine trying to do a life-saving procedure with the light of the candle, you can't see very well. It doesn't direct the light where you need it," she said.

Joy, the first midwife to receive a solar suitcase after the severe cyclone, was at the brink of death along with her husband and toddler when they were forced to stay on a clinic's rafters. Right after the storm, Joy managed to clean up the delivery room to offer its services to mothers and their babies despite the lack of electricity.

Staches poses for a photo with Tacloban midwife Joy, the first to receive a solar-powered suitcase equipped with bright LED lights, a fetal monitor and cellphone chargers.

"Without electricity in the city, Joy is so grateful to have clinic lighting and phone charging from the Solar Suitcase," Stachel said.

Stachel said, however, there are not enough Solar Suitcases to address the shortage of health facilities in the disaster zones, where each damaged birthing clinic needs to deliver more than 10 babies weekly.

The doctor, who worked tirelessly in bringing light to rural communities in Africa in recent years, has already returned to the US but continues to ask for funds for more suitcases to be sent to the Philippines.

"So far we only have a handful of Solar Suitcases in the Philippines, but our goal is to bring hundreds if not thousands. We are a non-profit. The way we do this is through donations and support," she said.

 

Donors may visit WeCareSolar.org or CNN's website.

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