National Catholic Register


Saving Lives, Not Just Solving Problems

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 11/5/13 at 2:27 PM


I don't go to Slate to find good news; but today, there was this.  A small group of students at Stanford's design school had an assignment for their "Design for Extreme Affordability" class.  As a classroom exercise, they were supposed to design a low-cost infant incubator for use in poor countries.  They discovered that

Each year, about fifteen million premature and low-birth-weight babies are born. A million of them perish, often within twenty-four hours of birth. The biggest preventable cause of death? Hypothermia. “These babies are so tiny they don’t have enough fat to regulate their own body temperature,” says Jane Chen, the MBA on the team. “In fact, room temperature feels like freezing cold water to them.” In India, where nearly half of the world’s low-birth-weight babies are born, hospital incubators can provide consistent, life-saving heat during those crucial first days. But traditional incubators can also cost as much as $20,000—each.

Not wanting to design something without fully understanding the need, one student traveled to Nepal, and discovered that many hospitals actually had incubators.  What poor women didn't have was a way to travel to the hospitals. 

And even if a new mother felt well enough to travel and had the family support she needed to maintain constant skin-to-skin contact with a premature baby en route to the hospital, she was still unlikely to leave her newborn in treatment. Family needs back in the village meant that premature babies were taken home again after five or six days, even if they should have stayed in an incubator for weeks.


For the Embrace team, the solution was now about the parent, not the clinician. They wrote this point of view down on the whiteboard in their workspace, and it became their guiding light for the rest of the twenty-week class—and beyond.

The group designed a simple, cheap, workable prototype that uneducated mothers could easily use at home.  It's sort of a miniature sleeping bag made of material that can be warmed and maintained at a warm temperature.  But when the group tested it in the field, they discovered that cultural differences were still getting in the way of medical success. Mothers didn't trust the clinical-looking temperature gauge, and were keeping the babies at a lower temperature just to be on the safe side -- with disastrous effects.

So the students continued adapting it, so that it would be workable for the people it was supposed to serve.

Several of the group members put aside personal and career opportunities to follow through with the development and research for this product. 

“At some level we did not have the heart to walk away,” Rahul told us. “Knowing that we could have actually made a difference, but walking away because we had ‘better opportunities’? No. I did not agree with that thinking. I wanted to devote the best years of my life to doing something meaningful.”

The Embrace Infant Warmer has now saved the lives of over 3,000 infants who simply needed to be kept warm.

This is precisely the kind of thing that Pope Francis is speaking about when he exhorts us to meet people where they are.  If the students doing research had been content to simply do their assignment, they would have certainly come up with a cheaper incubator -- and missed out on helping thousands of babies who never would have made it to the hospital.  They decided to do it right:  meet with the people, understand their lives and desires, and figure out how to help them, rather than simply solving an abstract problem.  And then they stuck with the project long after the original problem had been solved, and kept on refining it until it was truly helpful.

Francis was speaking of spiritual needs, but also of physical ones.  Let's not forget, Jesus preached and forgave sins, but also healed their bodies, and gave them something to eat!

This morning, I learned that the Infant Embrace Warmer is used by Chunmiao Little Flower, a non-profit organization in China that cares for abandoned babies and children, providing medical care, hospice care, and providing a Montessori-style education for orphans with disabilities.   

This blogger, who has been to Little Flower many times, says 

it is an amazing place, where medical care is combined with warmth and love.  I am always inspired by my visits there, inspired and filled with hope.  It is one of the reasons why I wish to continue to stay in China.

Little Flower was founded by an American-born Catholic couple who simply couldn't turn away once they saw the horrific conditions that Chinese orphans often endure.  You can follow Little Flower's many projects on their Facebook page, and see photos of the sweet little ones they have rescued.  Little Flower is always looking for donations!  God bless this organization, and the students who designed the Infant Embrace Warmer, and everyone who follows through and keeps the little ones warm.