Solar Suitcases Save Babies’ Lives

With just a little electricity, our grantees are taking matters of the heart into their own hands.

Merritt Eby Gates works with WE CARE Solar in rural Malawi, ensuring that Solar Suitcases are charged to do more than just turn the lights on, as the suitcases also help power equipment for listening to a baby’s heartbeat while still in the womb. 

This is Merritt’s story. 

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We pass the morning traffic of what feels like hundreds of bicycles — many of them offering taxi service by carrying passengers behind on an iron-welded rack with a thick green, blue or red cushion for comfort. As if stuck in a modern dance pose, the fat-trunk Baobao trees with gangly arms stand tall and graceful off the side of the road. We pull into Mangochi District Hospital in Malawi and head to the Maternity Wing to see how their Solar Suitcase is performing. Pregnant women line the hallway, forming a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns with their unique waist wraps. The labor ward is already bustling. Seven beds are separated by blue curtains, four of them occupied by laboring mothers. I ask to speak with the person in charge of the department, Esther Kandinda. While I sit at her desk in the labor ward, reading the hand-written monthly statistics of births and admittances, I marvel at the number of deliveries this facility conducts a month: 740 births in December!

Esther arrives and I verify that their Solar Suitcase is functioning well. Esther confirms that it is and I ask her what she likes most about the Solar Suitcase. Esther replies, ”The Fetal Doppler. Of course the light is so helpful because our power can just go off 2–3 times a week, but the Fetal Doppler has really helped us reduce the frequency of neonatal deaths by assisting to diagnose fetal distress.”

Each Solar Suitcase comes with a Fetal Doppler, a medical device that uses sound waves to give an accurate reading of the fetal heart rate. It is powered by two AA rechargeable batteries. The batteries can be recharged using the Solar Suitcase, making it a convenient and long-lasting appliance. In most health facilities in Africa, the fetal heart is detected by using a “fetoscope” which is a metal or plastic cone, positioned on the mother’s abdomen and listening with one end of the fetoscope held against the ear.

I asked Esther, “Why do you like the Fetal Doppler? How does it help reduce the number of neonatal deaths?” Esther replies, “Before we would use the fetoscope and you must have a very sensitive ear to hear the baby’s heartbeat. The baby could be in distress, and you could not know this. The Fetal Doppler tells you the heartbeat at that moment, so if there is a problem you can just send the mother to the Operating Theatre for a C-Section, then and there. Before, mothers could even wait five hours, seven hours and then you find the baby has died. I like the Fetal Doppler so much because it has made my work easy, and now I feel I have more control and can even give better service.”

While showing a midwife in South Western Uganda how to use the Fetal Doppler and trying to convince her of its importance, we used it on a mother in the delivery room. 120–160 beats per minute is a healthy fetal heart rate. However, in this instance the heart rate was 65 and dropping fast. “This must be the mother’s heart rate,” she said, but checking the wrist she found that it was different. The midwife acted fast, she yelled, “PUSH!!!!” in an instant out the baby came, light blue in color, but alive. In that moment I was reminded that every mother and every baby counts.

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