George Mason University
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George Mason University

Engineering Students Fix Equipment in Guatemalan Hospitals

February 20, 2015   /   by Martha Bushong

Engineering student Mohamed Ali works to repair a baby bottle washere at Roosevelt Hospital, Guatemala City.

Volgenau School of Engineering student repairing a baby bottle cleaner at a Guatemalan Hospital

The Roosevelt and San Juan de Dios Hospitals in Guatemala have no shortage of medical equipment. What the hospitals need,  however, is trained qualified people who can repair or maintain the equipment.

To help solve this dilemma, five George Mason University Volgenau School of Engineering students partnered with Engineering World Health to travel to Guatemala and offer their assistance. The team spent three weeks at Guatemalan hospitals troubleshooting, repairing and, if necessary, disposing of donated medical devices and supplies. Some devices were as simple as an electric fan, others as complicated as an autoclave.

The team made the city of Antigua its home for the month, dividing accommodations between two large homestays on the edge of town. Antigua is known for its beautiful architecture and panoramic views of three volcanoes, but this team wasn't there to sightsee. They had important work to do. In the first week, the students jumped right into intensive Spanish lessons and their work at the hospitals.

"The hardest aspect of this trip was communication," says bioengineering major Caitlin Johnson. "It was hard to communicate to the maintenance department how they should maintain the equipment or how to repair easy fixes by themselves. This required a lot of close work with the technicians at the hospital, all of whom had very little English."

The students were also surprised at the sheer number of donations the hospital received.

Left to right: Mason student Caitlin Johnson, Guatemalan engineer Juan Manuel Moreno Sandoval, Marquette student Becca Avena, Mason student Mohamed Ali, David Kovacs from Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, and student Shanyce Rovon Stewart from Rochester Institute of Technology all worked at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala in partnership with Engineering World Health. Photo courtesy of Volgenau School of Engineering.

Left to right: Mason student Caitlin Johnson, Guatemalan engineer Juan Manuel Moreno Sandoval, Marquette student Becca Avena, Mason student Mohamed Ali, David Kovacs from Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, and student Shanyce Rovon Stewart from Rochester Institute of Technology all worked at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala in partnership with Engineering World Health. Photo courtesy of Volgenau School of Engineering.

"The hospitals have so many donations from other countries sitting around the hospital, or outside in the ‘graveyard'―a fenced-in area reserved for medical devices―that they can't or don't know how to use," says Johnson. "The amount of equipment is staggering."

The equipment is donated for many different reasons―charity, age limits or recalls. Some machines are broken, some are incompatible with the local power rating, some are missing parts and some have only instructions in English. Without technicians who understand the machinery or maintain it, the equipment is useless.

The teams repaired hospital beds and fixed kitchen equipment. They devised work-around solutions for dialysis machines and bottle warmers, overcoming not only the language barriers but also a lack of tools to solve technical challenges. For instance, they had to use adjustable wrenches for repairs when they actually needed a set of socket wrenches.

The group's favorite fix came after troubleshooting an electrostatic unit for days and repairing several more obvious issues. Finally, they discovered a fried cockroach creating a carbon bridge that shorted out part of the circuit. After they brushed off the remains of the barbequed insect, the unit went back in service.

The students agreed the best moments were also the most rewarding.

"Every single time I put a machine back in service, I would see a doctor's face light up" with gratitude, said bioengineering student Mohamed Ali. "Even if they didn't know a single English word, their gestures would say it all."

In all, the team was able to repair:

  • 3 fully electronic hospital beds
  • 3 manual/electronic hospital beds
  • 1 liquid warmer
  • 1 infant scale
  • 1 ECG printer
  • 7 vital signs monitors
  • 5 cords and power supplies for the monitors
  • 1 industrial oven
  • 1 tortilla machine
  • 1 bread slicer
  • 1 floor fan

A version of this story by Martha Bushong appeared on the Mason News Desk on Feb. 20, 2015.

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