Being the Change: Biomedical engineering undergraduates volunteer in Guatemala

Students use skills to support pediatric nephrology unit technology

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RIT biomedical and mechanical engineering students volunteered this summer in Guatemala, working with Dr. Randall Lou-Meda (second from left) at the Guatemalan Foundation for Children with Kidney Disease. The students, (left to right) are Erik Freeman, Melissa Mendoza and Andrew Wetjen, all undergraduates in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

While growing up, Melissa Mendoza had known about family friend Dr. Randall Lou-Meda and his work with Fundanier, the Guatemalan Foundation for Children with Kidney Diseases. But it wasn’t until she began her studies in engineering at RIT that she realized she might be able to contribute to his work preventing kidney disease in young children.

This summer, Mendoza and classmates Andrew Wetjen and Erik Freeman traveled to Guatemala to work with Lou-Meda and his staff at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City to troubleshoot technical problems with medical equipment. “I figured it would be a great idea to have engineers come help out at the unit,” says Mendoza, a second-year biomedical engineering student from New York City.

During the course of their stay, their work would vary from updating clinic equipment protocols to participating as part of the team’s life-saving solutions. Mendoza also became “the bilingual bridge,” translating the technical information as well as many of the day-to-day conversations into Spanish, her native language, an important connection for the students and clinic staff.

“We didn’t know anything,” she says with a laugh. “We walked in there maybe reading a little bit about what the kidney does. I’m interested in that, but I didn’t know much about it except the basic biology of a kidney. Information was thrown at us left-and-right. We were jotting down notes like there was no tomorrow.”

The group learned quickly.

Kidney dialysis equipment was donated to the hospital clinic from Bridge of Life, and its contacts around the world. The protocols, the specific procedures for using the machinery, were written for another facility.

The students created a comprehensive procedural document detailing the process and specific responsibilities from monitoring particular machines on a daily basis to who would receive the data and track problem outcomes once reported. But it was the team’s work on a bloodline, the tubing that connects individuals to the hemodialysis machines, that made an impact for Mendoza.

A hemodialysis machine functions as an external kidney, filtering fluids, bicarbonates and acetic acid through the bloodline. The equipment was not working properly, giving sporadic readings about filtered blood and failing to detect if air was in the actual line. The medical staff had to constantly monitor the device or find a temporary work-around solution.

“If there is any indication of air in the tubing that is streaming the blood and connected to the child, it can cause an embolism, which would be a very serious problem,” Mendoza explains.

Freeman contacted NIPRO, an international biomedical device company, via email for advice about more sustainable solutions. The staff and students received a quick response and one of the company’s general managers visited the clinic to better assess the problem.

“He proposed a bunch of alternatives to how to fix the problem, one of them being even changing all the machines they had — this model was from 1998,” she adds. “It is great to show that students are motivated in applying their engineering skills, regardless of the level of experience, to real world applications.”

It is a pleasant surprise for Dan Phillips, biomedical engineering program chair, that students like Mendoza, who is just entering her second year at RIT, are seeking these opportunities so early in their program. Even before coming to RIT, Mendoza volunteered in the research department of a fertility clinic and at a cancer center, both in Manhattan. “I got to talk to a lot of life-changing people,” she says. It also confirmed her commitment to biomedical engineering.

Activities like these provide a valuable perspective on real-world challenges and are also essential components of their professional development as engineers, says Phillips. The biomedical engineering program was established in 2010 and will graduate its first class in May 2014.

“We encourage the biomedical engineering students to reach out and seek opportunities that bring them close to the end users of health care technology,” he says. “This group in particular not only initiated this collaboration but also went about the business of advocating for their endeavor and securing the financial resources to make it a reality.”

Mendoza has remained in contact with the clinic since the summer.

“Guatemala is a country dear to my heart, almost all of my family still lives there, and it means a lot to me that we traveled there to make a difference.”