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Making Summer Matter: Improving Health Care Through Engineering World Health

Helping hospitals and clinics repair medical equipment at the National Hospital de Quetzaltenango in Xela

On a recent trip to Guatemala, Duke Engineering student Ben Snowdon cooked rellenitos de plátnos, took salsa lessons and visited some local hot springs.

But all that was just a bonus on top of the bigger purpose of his trip: helping hospitals and clinics repair medical equipment at the National Hospital de Quetzaltenango in Xela through Duke-Engineering World Health (EWH).

EWH is a non-profit group that brings biomedical engineering expertise to communities of the developing world who lack resources.

Snowden, who is president of the Duke chapter of EWH, was joined by Duke students Bianca Bracht, Justin Fu and Anurag Dulapalli on the trip.

 Bianca Bracht, Justin Fu, Ben Snowdon and Anurag Dulapalli

“The goal of the trip was to help a poor hospital in Guatemala repair and maintain their medical equipment,” said Robert Malkin, founder and director of Duke-Engineering World Health.

During the trip, the students helped the local staff work on 18 pieces of medical equipment, placing 15 back into service. The equipment included sophisticated monitors, electrosurgical units, ventilators and others the technical staff at the hospital is not equipped or trained to maintain or repair.

“I learned a lot about fixing medical equipment and how to debug real-world electrical problems. Seeing concepts we learned about in our circuits classes put to use in the medical devices was an exciting and informative experience,” Snowdon said.

The students worked as a team on all the projects. They took turns diagnosing issues, repairing equipment, cleaning equipment and keeping records of all the equipment they worked on.

“Guatemala was an amazing learning experience,” Fu said. “Working with experienced biomedical technicians taught me how to attack a problem in a systematic manner to isolate the issue with a piece of medical equipment.”

“Staying with a host family gave me an authentic taste of Guatemalan culture,” he added.

After their experience, the students will encourage their peers to work as part of the program because it is a great opportunity to learn about medical equipment, have an impact on developing the world and have fun at the same time.

“I cannot think of a more enjoyable way to learn about medical equipment than my trip to Guatemala,” Snowdon said. “We were able to take apart and work on far more equipment than we would be allowed to in the U.S. We had great guidance from medical technicians Billy Teninty and Joe Leier, who taught us a great deal about fixing a variety of problems.”

“And the food was excellent. I had some of the best tacos in my life,” Snowdon said.

The staff at the National Hospital de Quetzaltenango were thrilled that the students had so much equipment back in service. The director of the hospital gave each of the students a certificate as thanks and invited them to return for an even longer visit next year.