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With few resources, creative thinking saves lives in Ugandan hospital

© UNICEF video
A baby sleeps in the incubation at St. Mary's Hospital Lacor in Uganda. The room is maintained at a constant temperature thanks to solar panels.

By Thomas Nybo

GULU DISTRICT, Uganda, 23 June 2010 – For the past 25 years, a member of the Comboni Catholic missionary service by the name of Brother Helio Croce has been devising unique, low-cost ways to help save lives in Uganda.

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Trained as an engineer, Brother Croce has become a master of innovation, working through lean years when even finding simple nails for construction was a challenge. He rides an old bicycle to work, has few material possessions and displays a resolute faith in human ingenuity – whatever the obstacles.

Warmth for babies

Brother Croce has been working at St. Mary's Hospital, a large medical institution in Uganda, since 1985. He said he has seen the hospital tackle many challenges, including rebel violence and virus outbreaks, but that many problems still persist.

© UNICEF video
Patients at St. Mary's Hospital Lacor in Uganda. Despite limited resources the hospital makes innovative use of technology to save lives.

One big challenge was how to keep premature babies warm in the hospital’s incubation room. Power outages across the region were causing wild fluctuations in temperature, killing many vulnerable babies.

With few resources on hand, Brother Croce developed a heating system that uses solar panels to heat water, which is then piped into the incubation room. He dismantled an old air conditioner and used the fan to gently blow the hot air from the pipes into the room. The only maintenance required is replacing the air filter every few months.

Making logistics work

The temperature-controlled room devised by Brother Croce can hold as many as 20 babies, maintaining a constant temperature between 30 and 32 degrees Celsius. Because it relies on very little electricity, the system can be replicated in rural areas throughout the country. Areas with no electricity can even use additional solar panels to power the fan.

Additionally, the warm, sterile environment created by Brother Croce’s system also provides mothers with a safe, comfortable and private place to breastfeed their babies.

Another logistical challenge facing a hospital as large as St. Mary’s is laundry. Up to 800 kg of dirty laundry are generated each day, and traditional laundering systems require tremendous amounts of electricity.

To confront this problem, Brother Croce embraced the simplest, most reliable laundering system he could find. He devised a vast network of gutters and pipes that collects rain water. Solar panels are used to heat the water and sterilize the laundry, which is then hung in the sun to dry.

Successful innovations

Among the other innovations at the hospital is the use of oxygen concentrators. As St. Mary’s sees more than 1,000 patients on an average day, the demand for oxygen is significant – and traditional oxygen canisters are expensive and impractical to deliver to remote hospitals.

An ideal solution – embraced, but not invented, by Brother Croce – is an oxygen concentrator. It pumps air through a sieve, which removes the nitrogen and produces virtually 95 per cent pure oxygen. The hospital has now been using concentrators for more than eight years.

Dr. Raymond Towie, an anaesthesiologist from the United Kingdom, said that the concentrator has solved many of the hospital’s biggest problems.

"Oxygen saves lives in almost any setting,” said Dr. Towie. "I would advocate it for any rural hospital – or even any difficult location hospital."




UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on an innovator who is saving lives in Uganda.
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