How’s my turning? (MASS part 2)

Can furniture revolutionize medical care in Haiti?

(Students Rebuild) Adam Saltzman’s a natural behind the wheel in Haiti: liberal use of the horn; taking the shoulder when the tap-taps get jammed up; commanding the rugged road. It’s a rosy view through his SUV’s cracked windshield.

“This is the backup car,” he assures us. The new car is with Ben Hartigan–another Mitsubishi, but around five years younger. (Five years is a lifetime for a Haitian SUVs.) We’re en route now to a furniture manufacturer’s, to pay Ben a visit. Today he’s inspecting progress on the third part of the cholera treatment strategy: a bed.

Once the Port-au-Prince cholera clinic is finished, the responsibility for running the center passes back to GHESKIO, a medical nonprofit operating in very Real World conditions: modest funding and staff sizes operating critical centers for health in Haiti. The situation is especially delicate considering the rigorous cleanliness needed of a cholera facility – but things can be made easier, or possible at all, through design.

The standard cholera bed has a hole cut out the middle so the patient doesn’t have to get up as the disease runs its course. Every time a patient is relocated from a waiting area bed to a bed in the ward, the sheets need changing, with great care, and are promptly and thoroughly cleaned. (In the event of an epidemic, the task becomes a larger challenge.) Traditionally, sheet changing is a two-nurse job.

MASS is attempting to make it a one-nurse job.

The furniture factory hosting Ben’s design prototype is separated from the road by a showroom – the kind you’d expect to find in an American strip mall, selling tables and bed frames and shelves and couches of all colors. An attendant is happy to help you in (at least) three languages.

Through the showroom’s back wall is another environment entirely. Under a deep, long overhang, dozens of school desks sit at attention for a final coat of lacquer over their fiberglass surfaces. Beyond this stubby phalanx, men are sanding the newest desks. Their hands covered in a fine blue dust. The manager greats us, lets us see the room where fiberglass is extruded from a spidery machine and collected into molds of every shape. White strands cover the ground like 1000 years of cobwebs, and the fumes are overwhelming. Little wonder the smoothers opt to work outside.

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Ben and Adam’s operation doesn’t use any of this space. They’ve taken over a corner of the factory office with a pair of cholera bed prototypes, which Ben brought out to show us.

“This was the first version,” Ben indicates a reclining chair built from lengths of rebar, but exhibiting all the characteristics of an adjustable lounge chair, like you’d see at the poolside. Certainly you could fit a shit around the ends. I took it as a full-scale study model.

“We have two functions we’re trying to solve with this chair. First, it should be adjustable, so people can sit up or lie down.” Second, it should be such that one person can replace a fitted sheet.

Ben points out how the adjustable back can resolve both issues: bring the head all the way forward, it meets the toe, and off the sheet comes.

The second prototype was more refined–a frame that more closely resembled a deck chair, made from bent tube steel.

The idea of course is not to come up with something flashy, but to come up with something enabling. The design grace lies in the ease of operation – not formal originality. (In fact I’d say the more familiar the chair looks to nurses and patients, the better they will interact with it.)

Ben and a colleague bring out a jade-colored canvas sheet sewn to the chair’s dimensions–hole cut out and everything. They delicately install and remove the sheet from the second prototype. They aren’t at time trials yet, but they’re really close.



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