Dr. Laura Stachel was an obstetrician when a severe back injury that occurred during a delivery in 2002 forced her to give up her practice. Switching gears, she pursued a career in public health, receiving a master’s in 2006 and a doctorate in 2018 from UC Berkeley.
In 2008, when doing research at a Nigerian hospital, Stachel saw the tragic effects that a lack of reliable lighting and electricity had on maternal and newborn care. Since the hospital had electricity for no more than 12 hours a day, nighttime deliveries took place in near darkness. Cesarean sections were sometimes conducted by flashlight. Of the hospital’s 150 deliveries per month, three to eight women died due to complications.
“I saw time and again how the lack of lighting was failing to provide lifesaving care,” she said.
When she explained the problem to her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator, he designed a stand-alone solar electric system that could fit in carry-on luggage, what would eventually become the “Solar Suitcase,” and quickly put it to use. Soon requests for the portable system came from around the world.
Stachel and her husband founded We Care Solar in 2010, whose mission is to improve the health outcomes for mothers and infants in regions without reliable electricity. In its beginnings, the couple made the suitcases out of their Berkeley backyard, with the help of neighbors and friends.
Recognizing her groundbreaking work, the AARP awarded Stachel and four other founders of nonprofits with its 2023-24 purpose prize on Sept. 26. The national award honors people ages 50 plus “who have proven that they are using their knowledge and life experience to make a difference.” The five winners will each receive $50,000 for their organizations.
Stachel said the funds will benefit We Care’s global Light Every Birth Initiative, which seeks to eradicate poverty in public maternal health centers. The program is now in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe and headed to Malawi and Tanzania.
“My life came to a devastating halt when my back injury occurred,” Stachel said. “This has actually allowed me to find my purpose and touch many more people than I could have as an obstetrician in private practice.”
This is not Stachel’s first major recognition. Forbes put her on its inaugural 50 Over 50 list of “women proving success has no age limit” in 2021, along with recipients like Vice President Kamala Harris.
We Care Solar is also up for AARP’s Inspire Award, which would bring the organization another $10,000.
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