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Playing With Toys and Saving Lives

Friday, January 31, 2014
January 30, 2014

“Apollo 13” is a good movie, but one 95-second stretch is what turned it into it a geek classic.   Their Command Module disabled, three astronauts use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. Carbon dioxide is building up. The Command Module’s filters are available to scrub the air, but they’re square, and the receptacles for them on the Lunar Module are round. “Well, I suggest you gentleman invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole … rapidly,” the flight director Gene Kranz in Houston tells his engineers.

They dump onto a table everything available to the astronauts. Using duct tape, cardboard logbook covers, plastic moon rock bags and a suit hose, they make the filters fit. The astronauts are saved.

That video clip of hacking is widely known, but you may not have seen the one just above. It starts with Yamilet Mendoza Martínez, a nurse shopping in a toy store in Jinotepe, Nicaragua.   She needs to make an IV alarm — something that makes noise when a bag of IV fluid is ready to be changed.   Having an alarm means the nurse doesn’t have to keep popping in to check every few minutes — an impossibility for severely overworked nurses. The solution?   A toy AK-47 — one that buzzes when fired.

Back at the Hospital Escuela Regional Santiago Jinotepe-Carazo, Mendoza Martínez and her colleagues hooked up the gun to an IV pole. As the IV bag empties, a rubber band attached to it compresses, opening one side of a clothespin. That closes the other side, putting the clothespin wire in contact with the electrical contact in the gun trigger. Bag empty = gun buzz.

How do hospitals like this one normally get medical equipment?  For the most part, they don’t — some public hospitals can’t even afford IV tubing or gloves.  Often, they get donations from rich-country hospitals, which give away last year’s technology. But these machines tend not to last long. They might need parts that are only available a continent away, or no one knows how to repair them.  Sometimes it’s just that the electricity has gone out — or there was no electricity to begin with.

Equipment destined for a productive life in a third-world hospital is equipment adapted for local circumstances, rugged, fixable locally, with available parts. Read more ...