Engineering Program Helps Latin Hospitals

Marquette student Jennifer Wozniczka (left) and Duke student Lucy He testing a defibrillator in Rosales, Nicaragua using a board designed and build by Engineering World Health students.

Duke engineering student Le (Lucy) He was stunned to discover that the lights in the operating room of her adopted Rosales, El Salvador, hospital flickered off and on during the day. Similarly, upon her first visit to the hospital, she saw patients in beds everywhere but few working monitors hooked up to them.

Lucy He is one of five Duke University students who returned to campus from a challenging and rewarding summer at disadvantaged hospitals in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where they said they felt that their efforts affected the lives of countless hospital patients. The students were among 17 participants in the Duke University-Engineering World Health (DEWH) Summer Institute, in which their role was to analyze, repair and install healthcare equipment.

“We made a big impact by repairing fetal monitors for our hospital’s labor and delivery room,” said Lucy He, a senior in biomedical engineering. “From the moment we entered our hospital and saw the conditions, I knew my summer experience wasn’t going to be about textbook engineering.”

The students found that modern equipment that is often taken for granted in U.S. hospitals is in short supply in developing-world hospitals, which struggle simply to operate with uninterrupted electricity.

"Illuminating" is how Avery Capone, a recent Duke graduate, described his experience of being in a challenging position, with language barriers and unstructured workdays. He said he learned a solid lesson in independence and self-reliance.

“My hospital in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, had 22 infant cardiac monitors not being used for various reasons. Plus, there were numerous defibrillators, electrocardiograms and pulse oximeters that needed repair,” he said. “Some were missing parts, others lacked instructions. The amount of work was infinite, so I salvaged the good pieces, got them to the hospital floor in working condition and instructed the staff nurses on maintenance.”

As a nonprofit organization for both students and professionals, Engineering World Health enables engineers, biologists, physicists and chemists to apply their skills in a challenging international environment, improving healthcare technology and assisting individuals in poor communities, said Robert Malkin, a professor in the Pratt School of Engineering and director of Engineering World Health.

“The Summer Institute enables engineering and science students to use their passion and skills in underserved, foreign hospitals,” Malkin said. “This is a uniquely challenging program that requires students’ committed effort to study, learn on the go and train others in the field. It tests students’ abilities to perform under unfamiliar conditions.”

Duke organizes its Summer Institute, in which the first month takes place in Costa Rica and consists of intensive foreign language study and training on equipment repair. The second month consists of on-site placement at a disadvantaged hospital in either Nicaragua or El Salvador to repair, train and install equipment. The program expects to add hospitals in Africa next year.

This summer’s student participants included two men and 15 women, most of whom are engineering majors at colleges throughout the U.S. and Canada.

According to Lucy He, close friendships were developed as participants bonded around the challenges of working and living in a foreign country. “It was a life-changing cultural experience,” she said.