Surgery by candlelight: Solar lights save lives
"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
Matthew 4:16, NRSV
If only you could hear, yes hear, the smile in Betty Musau's voice. As the communicator for the North Katanga Conference of The United Methodist Church, the Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau has conversations that cross continents. Talking via Skype, Musau smiles broadly while describing a simple yet innovative technology being used at the Shungu Clinic in Kamina, Democratic Republic of Congo, that she calls, “a miracle.”
“In many places, things come up all the time that people take for granted,” says Musau, a health-care worker and partner with the church’s communications agency. “But here, in a different context, the Solar Suitcase is a miracle tool because it is changing lives.”
Imagine that you are a doctor performing surgery or suturing a wound and suddenly the room is plunged into darkness. Not a comforting or familiar thought for those of us accustomed to up-to-date medical facilities and unlimited power. However, in many rural and out-of-reach areas of Africa, unreliable electricity and lack of generators or backup power supplies make operating in less than perfect conditions a reality. This is precisely where the Solar Suitcase comes in.
A close-up of the ceiling at Shungu Clinic in Kamina, DRC, shows a solar light shining alongside regular bulb lighing. Photo by Neelley Hicks, United Methodist Communications.
Solar Suitcases, small carrying cases the size of carryon luggage, can provide light for an entire operating room. The kit includes two solar panels, headlamps, phone and laptop chargers and even a fetal monitor. By installing the solar panels on the roof, a hospital or clinic can set up long-lasting LED lights that will automatically take over in the event of a power loss. If the electricity goes out, the solar lights can be switched on. Solar kits and solar lights also can be used outside a medical facility, so their portability is another great bonus.
The Shungu Clinic in Kamina received its Solar Suitcase through the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection after the Rev. Cayce Stapp saw it at the 2015 Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Stapp, Pastor for GlobaI Impact Ministries at the Leawood, Kansas, church, helped purchase a kit to donate it to the clinic at Kamina, sending it back with Musau who was also at the conference.
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“We immediately recognized the power of this device to save lives,” says Stapp. “It was only natural that Rev. Betty should take it back with her, so they could use it right away.”
For Musau, it is hard to describe the benefit of solar lights, but she relays one of the more difficult situations. “I remember last year when I visited the church [in Kamalondo],” she says. “They told me that one of the United Methodist members from Kamalondo’s local church had died. She died after a C-section, and I went, ‘Why? Why are women dying in this situation? We need to improve our health center so we can save lives.’”
Saving lives, bringing joy
Before the Solar Suitcase and portable solar lights, physicians often found themselves performing high-risk surgeries or trying to resuscitate patients guided only by handheld flashlights, kerosene lanterns or candlelight. At times, Dr. John Ngoy Lambule, an overseeing physician in the Democratic Republic of Congo reported, nurses or assistants held up cellphones when no other light source was available.
“But now,” Lambule said, “Electricity is available all the night to save lives, and it brings joy not only to me as a medical doctor, but also to the nurses.”
The Rev. Neelley Hicks is director of ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) church initiatives at United Methodist Communications. She sees more U.S. local churches growing relationships with churches in other countries and providing Musau's miracle tool to other power-less clinics and mission projects.
“When United Methodist Communications talks about using technology for social good, this is it,” Hicks says. “Solar suitcases are another way people's lives will be forever impacted.”
“Just imagine you are sick, very desperate, very tired and being brought to the hospital on a bicycle in the dark,” Musau said. “And then imagine when you arrive and go into the surgical room, there is light. It redeems your hope that you can be healed.”
The Solar Suitcase has been so successful at Shungu that is it now the clinic’s primary source of light. The Kamina facility’s main power source is a fuel generator that is costly and time-consuming to maintain. The clinic switched to using the solar lights 24/7 with great – and much more environmentally friendly – results.
“Sometimes you see things from faraway and think, ‘This solar suitcase is nothing,’ Musau says. “But instead, it is helping people a lot, especially in rural areas where there is no electricity.”
The solar suitcase is one way technology is changing the game for doctors and patients alike. Interested churches can support the ICT4D initiatives by making a donation and learning more about technology for social good.