Wars. Earthquakes. Floods. Disasters galore-–and millions who are in desperate need of care when the medical infrastructure is absent or devastated.
Médecins Sans Frontières aka Doctors Without Borders grabbed headlines after Haiti’s earthquake when it flew in an inflatable hospital that became operational within just a few days.
But, mobile hospitals are nothing new. As far back as the 1940s, the U.S. Army introduced auxiliary surgery groups-–small, mobile groups associated with the larger permanently constructed hospital—that set up their tents within a few miles of the front lines. The groups later became known as Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units. But, the tents “were frigid in winter, hot in summer, and dark all year.” Dim light was provided by incandescent bulbs and sterility was in short supply.
Then inflation (not the money kind) came into play
In 1959, the French Army working in North Africa, dropped hospitals by parachute near the battlefield. The tent-hospitals used inflatable rubber ribs to support the framework — in 20 minutes, medics could begin to care for casualties.
About a decade later, a 60-bed U.S. Army MUST (medical unit, self-contained, transportable) hospital was erected in Dong Tam, Vietnam, and, along with constructed buildings, boasted two inflatable wards. But those would collapse if punctured or if enemy mortar exploded nearby.
And then, experience, technology and know-how were added to inflatability
The inflatable, plug-and-play hospital that MSF set up in Haiti consisted of 9 tents – each more than 1,000 square feet, according to Hocine Bouhabib, a logistics director at MSF. The tents have plastic-tile flooring, and are made from the same fabric used for inflatable lifeboats. Interior and exterior walls are constructed of nylon and space is left between them so air can be pumped in for an insulating effect.
And, they’ve got way more than incandescent light bulbs. Each tents comes with its own kit so “we can deploy including energy supply, water supply, all the sanitation, and all medical equipment inside the tent,” says Laurent Dedieu, logistics supervisor at the MSF’s U.S. office. “In Haiti, everything needed to run a hospital including beds and biomedical equipment is included.”
That “everything” also included a 30 kilovolt generator as well as a 60 KV one – along with equipment to ensure electrical safety, an electric board and electrical wire and set up plugs needed for the medical equipment.
Inflatable hospitals in pictures
MSF has been using inflatable hospitals for almost five years – and they’ve learned along the way. They’re still looking for ways to improve the technology and deployment. However, as Dedieu says, “The first phase of an emergency is not the best moment to test new technology.” He welcomes new ideas though, and wants people to share technology ideas they think might be helpful. “We will really try to answer everyone. People shouldn’t expect fast feedback from us right now, we have so many requests we can’t answer everybody, but we try.” The address for the U.S. office is Doctors Without Borders, 333 7th Ave,, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001-5004.