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Clinics in a Can Hope to Help Haiti
Missouri Capital
Credit:  William Worley

Cleon Rickel

When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti Jan. 12th, the first thought  Mike Wawrzewski, a Wichita, Kan., physician’s assistant and chief executive officer of the medical missionary group Hospitals for Hope, had was how the group could respond.

“Do we go? Do we send medical help?“ he recalled the conversation.

But the answer quickly came to mind: shipping containers, those 40-foot by 8 by 9 foot trailer boxes put on rail cars or truck wheels and pulled by semi-trucks.

Those rusting eyesores hidden in trashy perches behind large retail stores or industrial sites would now become useful. Those ubiquitous metal boxes have become so much a part of the American landscape some people are putting them in their backyards as a cheap form of storage -- much to the horror of municipal and county zoning officials.

Wawrzewski’s answer for getting aid to Haiti was to convert those shipping containers into medical clinics and send them through regular shipping channels like any other shipping containers -- an idea he dubs Clinics in Cans. When they get to Haiti, they’re trucked to where they’re needed.

“It’s a practical solution to not only their immediate healthcare needs but also their long-term healthcare needs,” he said.

Hospitals for Hope and a batch of volunteers, including teams from Wawrzewski’s hometown of Garnett, Kan., 70 miles southwest of Kansas City, have been installing drywall, wiring, painting and plumbing to turn five shipping containers into small but fully-equipped medical clinics.

When they’re redone, their “Clinics in Cans” may look like shipping containers on the outside but inside they’ll be fully-functional medical clinics with two examination rooms; complete with equipment, a laboratory and storage, and an electrical generator and small water plant.

Leta Reppert, a Hospitals for Hope spokesperson said, each Clinic in a Can may be dropped in the middle of nowhere and immediately become a fully functional medical clinic, complete with lights, X-ray machines and other medical testing equipment.

“It’s really pretty amazing to see how they‘re done,” Reppert said of the containers that also provide running water. “There’s this big empty box and when it’s done, it looks just like a medical clinic. It’s been amazing.”

And because it’s still a shipping container, it will be filled with emergency equipment and medical supplies donated by a large Wichita, Kan. medical center and an Internet-based medical supply company. When it arrives, the supplies will be unloaded and the container will become a clinic, according to Wawrzewski.

“That should happen fairly soon,” Reppert said.

If the group gets enough money, three of the containers will be parked in a U-shape formation and will become an instant medical center, with surgery suite and more specialized hospital care, said Wawrzewski.

Rather than try send medical volunteers with the containers, the Clinics in Cans will be operated by medical teams already in Haiti, including those from Heart to Heart International, the medical missionary group based in Olathe, Kan., with several years of work in Haiti.

‘They already have the feet on the ground,” Wawrzewski said.

“We have been associated with them for several years -- mostly, supporting their work abroad with donations of medical aid,” said Pete Brumbaugh, Heart to Heart International vice president of strategic communications. “They are basically repaying the kindness by supporting our work in Haiti.”

Medical volunteers of Heart to Heart are staffing three primary-care clinics that are offering nearly 1,000 patients a day family medicine, pediatrics and obstetric and gynecological services, said Brumbaugh. Because there are so many major injuries and because most medical facilities have been destroyed, minor problems are low priority, he added. The quake’s death toll could exceed 100,000.

“We are also sending out ‘extreme teams' to outlying areas and supporting other groups that are providing medical care for people affected by the January 12th earthquake,” Brumbaugh said.

One team visited the area that was the epicenter of the quake and was particular devastated, he said.

The concept of converting containers into clinics has an elegant simplicity worth of E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” philosophy or Victor Papanek’s “design for the real world” engineering, turning something that is a cast-off in one part of the world into something valuable in another. It’s a great idea, according to Brumbaugh.

“It is easily transported by sea, then by a semi to its eventual site in Haiti,” he said. “By local standards, the clinic is very nice.

“Best of all, it's earthquake- and hurricane-proof,” added Brumbaugh.

This an idea that Wawrzewski’s group has tried before.

The first “Clinic in a Can” was made five years ago and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and used as an emergency clinic in the Gulf Coast.

Ironically, it was later sent to Les Cayes in Haiti, where it’s now being used by relief workers to treat refugees who are fleeing Haiti’s stricken capital Port au Prince.

Wawrzewski got the idea in part because of a conversation with a Kenyan man who described the death of his sister in childbirth. The woman was giving birth at home when complications set in and her family raced her to the hospital. However, the nearest hospital was still too far away and she died along the way.

In his mind, Wawrzewski pondered an inexpensive and simple way to put medical clinics in underdeveloped areas -- when converting the containers into clinics struck him.

Hospitals for Hope has filled unused containers with medical supplies and equipment and sent them overseas as part of its mission work in other countries. The group operates a hospital in Bolivia and is in the process of restarting a war-destroyed hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, as part of its mission of improving the health care of underserved people nationally and internationally.

They begin by gathering and distributing medical supplies and equipment and creating low-income clinics and hospitals and sending medical volunteer. Wawrzewski decided to experiment with the idea of combining medical cargo with medical care.

He said he’d like to build at least two more Clinics in a Can to be kept on standby basis to be used in major natural disasters occurring in the U.S.

For make donations or to volunteer, please contact: Hospitals for Hope: (316) 262-0964, e-mail [email protected] or check the group’s Web site at www.hospitalsofhope.org or Heart to Heart International, 401 S. Clairborne Rd., Suite 302; Olathe, KS 66062; |phone (913) 764-5200; e-mail [email protected] or check the Web site www.hearttoheart.org

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