How I Did It: Laura Stachel, Co-Founder and Executive Director of We Care Solar

I love being a doctor and delivering babies. But 10 years ago, during a difficult delivery, a searing pain shot down my back, followed by tingling electric shocks radiating to my right hand.

An MRI later revealed the problem – degenerating discs in my neck were pressing on the nerves to my arms. Over the next year, I was forced to accept that my career as an obstetrician was over.

Incredibly, what I initially viewed as a devastating setback I now consider the beginning of the most fulfilling chapter of my life.

Unable to practice clinical medicine, I decided to further my studies and took a seat in the classroom of a public health program at UC Berkeley. In 2008, a professor invited me to join a research team in Nigeria.

Our goal was to understand why Nigerian women were dying in childbirth at one of the highest rates in the world.

As we flew to Africa, I wondered how I might share my knowledge of clinical medicine. I was excited to feel useful again!

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care at a state hospital, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness.

With sporadic access to electricity, the dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone cesarean sections and other life-saving procedures, or turn patients away, despite their need for emergency care.

One evening, I stood in the dark of the labor room while a pregnant woman with eclampsia fought for her life. In the darkness, I could offer little more than emotional support.

I thought about all the women like her, suffering in silence as they tried to give birth, unable to access life-saving care that I had always considered routine.

Before coming to Nigeria, I had never realized that a lack of electricity was a barrier to safe motherhood, and I vowed to change this.

I described the desperate scene in an email to my husband, Hal Aronson, who had taught solar energy technology in California for more than 10 years.

Hal immediately focused on solar power as a way to provide electricity at the hospital. When I returned home to Berkeley, Hal designed a solar electric system to help the hospital I visited. We raised funds for this project, and I returned to Nigeria.

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.

“You must leave your suitcase here,” my colleagues insisted, “This will help us save lives.” The first We Care Solar Suitcase had found a home.

It wasn’t long before Nigerian clinics asked for the magic suitcase that would light up their maternity wards. Word continued to spread, and, with the help of the internet, requests for We Care Solar Suitcases arrived from around the world.

Soon, our Solar Suitcases were travelling to midwives in Burma, relief workers in Haiti, and doctors in Tanzania.

Over the next year, our backyard volunteer operation evolved into factory-based production line, with support from the Blum Center of Developing Economies and the MacArthur Foundation.

We began to pilot larger programs in Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda . We now have close to 200 suitcases in 19 countries, helping thousands of women give birth more safely every year.

My learning curve was steep. I had never run a non-profit organization, managed international programs, or spent so many weeks traveling away from my family. There were many times when I was overwhelmed and wondered whether I should throw in the towel.

But I would think back to those first nights in an African delivery room, when I made a personal promise to be the voice for women who had no voice. And I would keep going.

My life journey wasn’t the straight line I might have forecast. And ten years ago, when I was still performing obstetrics in a U.S. hospital, I would never have predicted that I’d become a globetrotting advocate for sustainable energy solutions for health care.

Nor would I have guessed that something other than delivering babies could give my life deep meaning and fulfillment.

If you’re facing a change in your own life, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Don’t underestimate yourself. You can probably do much more than you think you can. If you find an endeavor you feel passionate about, take one step at a time, and soon you will have created a path. Solving small problems can help you build the capacity to meet far greater challenges.
  2. Don’t let anxiety stop you. It’s fine to notice when you’ve left your comfort zone, but don’t let that dissuade you from pursuing something meaningful. Your anxiety most likely means that you are on the edge of an important learning curve.
  3. Be open to an unpredictable future. I thought I would spend my professional career as an obstetrician. When health problems interfered with that plan, I had to let go and see where life was taking me. As it turned out, I stumbled upon an area in public health that had been neglected – solar electricity for health care – and in the process found my passion.
  4. Be willing to be a consummate learner. Although I knew NOTHING about solar electricity when I started my organization, I was willing to learn. And now, when I travel the world teaching midwives and doctors about solar electricity for their health center, I can say, “If I could learn this…so can you!”
  5. And finally, be persistent. It hasn’t been easy to start an organization and raise money for projects in Africa, Haiti and Asia. Sometimes I think my greatest attribute is my stubborn nature.

If you believe in your mission – don’t give up!

About the Author

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Laura Stachel, co-founder of We Care Solar, is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with 14 years of clinical experience. She holds holding an M.D. from University of California, San Francisco and an M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health from University of California, Berkeley. She is a DrPH candidate at UCB; her dissertation centers on emergency obstetric care in Nigeria. Laura co-chairs an international working group on Energy and Health for the UN Foundation.

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