Fixing Medical Equipment to Save Lives

By David Einhorn, guest correspondent

Lance Abernathy is the volunteer technician people see helping SBH staff repair medical equipment, but he defers the credit to others supporting him behind the scenes. This network includes the foundation that sent him down and tech support personnel from manufacturers willing to share technical specifications about their equipment.

Similarly, while HEI/SBH operates the hospital in Fond des Blancs, many other organizations generously support that effort by donating resources. One example is the TriMedx Foundation, which sponsored Abernathy’s trip. The nonprofit foundation and it namesake corporate sponsor have sent 18 volunteers to Haiti since 2000 to repair equipment at St. Boniface and two other hospitals.

“Medical equipment is high-maintenance even in U.S. hospitals,” says Mary Owens, TriMedx Director. “Compound that with the heat, open-air hospitals without climate control, lack of clean stable power, and the nonexistent supply of repair parts.” Indeed, maintenance of medical equipment is a major consideration for many organizations: The World Health Organization estimates that between 70 to 90 percent of medical equipment in the developing world does not work.

“My mindset is if it’s man-made, I can fix it,” Abernathy says. “But it’s a challenge here. I actually spend more time preparing in advance how to address the problem than I do working on the actual equipment.”

For his part, the 60-year-old Abernathy takes his work one piece of equipment at a time. A biological electronics specialist at the St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Idaho, Abernathy takes on everything from an x-ray digitizer to an anesthesia ventilator while he works closely with the hospital’s Facilities Superintendent Jerome Clarel,

Clarel says that by pooling resources, knowledge, and speaking the only language they both speak fluently—techno speak—the two have managed to repair most of what was on their list. The need is enormous and ongoing, however, and this is unlikely to be the last visit from TriMedx.

“The bigger question [worldwide] is what has happened when the equipment does not work— how many lives lost and patients not treated,” Owens says. “It’s something we cannot fathom in the United States: walking for hours to see a doctor only to find out they cannot help you because of nonfunctional equipment.”