Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update from Guatemala: "It broke our hearts to have to say we could not help"

At a clinic in the mountains of central Guatemala, a mother and baby waited hopefully for the American students and their special stethoscope.

Students meet with Dr. Cristian Barrios (first right) and the staff
of a clinic in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski. More coverage on tumblr.
The tool could eventually help diagnose congenital heart defects early enough for children to get preventative treatment and avoid permanent damage to their hearts, brains and lungs. But right now, it's an early prototype.

The Michigan Engineering students were visiting the clinic to learn how to improve their device. Because it's still in the development stage, they weren't prepared to actually use it yet.

"It broke our hearts to have to say we could not help," said Nathaniel Skinner, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering who is leading the team designing the stethoscope. "The team was surprised, saddened, and encouraged. Nothing could make us want to move faster and deliver technology and hope to Dr. Christian Barrios and his staff more intensely."

Dr. Barrios heads a clinic in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán---one of many the students visited this week as they journey across Guatemala. They're meeting with the midwives, doctors and patients who need this technology as the students work to refine it into something that can help save young lives. The College of Engineering's Marcin Szczepanski is traveling with the team and posting photos, videos and observations of the trip on tumblr.

15-month-old Wilson Irael Mendez has a congenital heart defect
known as tetralogy of Fallot. Wilson needs to get stronger
before surgery. Wilson’s sister is keeping an eye out on him.
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski. Learn more on tumblr.
The goal is to build a stethoscope that can record the heartbeats of infants in rural areas and send them to a specialist in the city who could make more sense of the sounds. That specialist is internationally-known pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr. Aldo Castañeda, who requested the device. Since 1998, his foundation has diagnosed and treated more than 2,000 children with congenital heart defects in Central America. But there are many more who need help, his website says. Every year, another 1,200 babies in Guatemala alone are born with these heart conditions. It can be difficult or impossible to get newborns to the city for early diagnosis and treatment.

The young engineers belong to the student organization M-HEAL. This is their spring break. They've spent a lot of it in a van---traveling up to 12 hours a day. They've made progress narrowing their objective and understanding the ecosystem that their technology will be a part of. Read a full Q and A with team leader Nathaniel Skinner on tumblr. Students from biomedical engineering and computer science and engineering are also involved in this effort.

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