Re-engineering MedWish

Students work with Alex Massiello, a retired engineer, to repair and repurpose discarded medical supplies.

Re-engineering MedWish

Case students bring passion and engineering skills to a quest to repurpose discarded medical supplies—with lifesaving results.

This story first ran in the fall 2019 issue of Case Alumnus.


By Harlan Spector


A group of science-minded Case Western Reserve University students scored an engineering feat recently while testing and repairing second-hand pulse oximeters to donate to needy hospitals in Africa.


They discovered that batteries in the critical devices drain without constant electricity, even when the pulse oximeters are turned off. The machines, which measure oxygen level in the bloodstream, were designed to be plugged in at all times.

“It’s designed with a bias – it’s assumed you always have electricity,” said Professor Colin Drummond, the assistant chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Case School of Engineering and the group’s advisor. “So we had to figure out a way around that.”

The solution? They installed a simple switch to stop the battery from discharging when the machine is unplugged. Drummond said the experience got engineering students to think about “functionality in themgreater context of environment and social structure.”

The students belong to the Case chapter of MedWish International, a Cleveland non-profit that repurposes discarded and unused medical supplies for developing nations in need. The students, most of whom are majoring in science or engineering, are using their skills to give new life to medical devices discarded by hospitals.


The Case chapter is focused specifically on refurbishing devices, such as vital signs monitors, pulse oximeters and baby incubators. The students have high aspirations. They see themselves a national model for student MedWish chapters. They’re working on guidelines that other student groups could use to repair and repurpose lifesaving devices, based on their experiences. And they are trying to establish a feedback loop with their far-flung clients, to get better and better at what they do.


Chapter co-president Ari Bard said the pulse oximeter battery issue illustrates the ability of engineering students to solve problems by thinking in new ways.

“We want to use the skills we’re learning to help people in any way we can,” he said. “We interact with devices, sometimes see problems that develop, and get ideas on how to design future ones.”

CWRU MedWish evolved from a merger of two like-minded clubs on campus. A dozen years ago, a science and engineering club called Medical Instrumentation for Nations in Development (MIND) laid the groundwork for testing and repairing medical equipment in conjunction with MedWish. In 2014-15, the MIND club won a Case Student Leadership Award for community service. About two years ago, MedWish and MIND merged and last year the new club shipped its first few refurbished pulse oximeters toAfrican hospitals lacking the equipment.

Club members gather every other Saturday during the school year at the MedWish headquarters and warehouse on East 31st Street in Cleveland’s Asiatown. They enter a setting of challenge and innovation.


Thinking like an engineer

A cacophony of beeps—high and low, fast and slow—gives away their location in a third-floor workshop. Students gather at worktables, surrounded by racks filled with used medical devices. The devices that come into the warehouse are in working order but have outlived their usefulness to area hospitals, often because of new standards and technology. The Case students clean the machines and locate components and cables. They download operating manuals, run tests, reassemble and

re-engineer devices when needed.

About a dozen students gathered in the workshop on a recent Saturday, one of their last sessions of the spring semester. Alex Massiello, a retired biomedical engineer and a MedWish volunteer, is their hands-on mentor and supervisor.

Gowthan Yerneni and Ajay Sammeta, both sophomore biochemistry students, huddled around an intensive care monitor. Sammeta tested the machine’s alarm settings, while Yerneni read from an operator’s manual. Neither had any experience with intensive care monitors.

“We just follow the manual, go through it line by line,” Yerneni said, as if it were no harder than figuring out a new microwave oven. He placed a pulse oximeter sensor on his index finger to verify the instrument was working.

Students say the experience is rewarding in many ways. They’re helping improve patient care in poor countries, while keeping discarded devices out of the waste stream. And they are learning think like engineers.

“Hands on, experiential learning,” said Jasmine Haraburda, a sophomore biology major and chapter vice president. “You get to play with devices, figure them out and see what engineering is like.”

Julian Narvaez, a sophomore electrical engineering major, said it’s easy to get wrapped up in the technology and engineering, but that students care deeply about the humanitarian aspect of the work. Narvaez visited a hospital in Uganda last year and saw a shortage of pulse oximeters in a neonatal intensive care unit.


“They had seven working pulse oximeters for 80 children,” he said, noting that pneumonia is a big killer in that part of the world. “The more pulse oximeters we can send out there, the better.”


Afra Syed, a graduate student in medical physiology, sorted through components of vital signs monitors and nodded in agreement.

“There’s a need for supplies in places globally that don’t have the funds or access,” she said. “These devices we’re working on aren’t defective. They should be utilized.”


A national model?

Sometimes students have to scout for batteries, cables and sensors, or order new ones. The chapter has an operating budget of about $7,000, most of which comes from alumni through the Case Alumni Association. The chapter can’t buy all the parts it needs, Drummond said. He and Massiello have bought some parts with their own money.


As their recent session drew to a close, Massiello gathered the group, reminding students who served as test subjects to remove leads they had placed on their chests and bellies.

“One of the major hospital systems in Columbus, lucky for us, shipped us a relatively new ICU system,” he announced. “We have enough to put together probably 10 of these, which is incredible. That’s next week.”

The fledgling chapter is just now hitting its stride, Drummond said. It sent two ICU monitoring systems to hospitals in Kenya in April, and a dozen more devices were ready to go. In addition to working on guidelines, the chapter also plans to create a communications channel to receive feedback from faraway hospitals about the refurbished devices from Cleveland.

The students hope to establish a model that other MedWish groups at other engineering schools can follow.


Drummond, for one, is impressed by the students’ dedication.

“Students at Case are very, very busy. It’s inspiring that they take the time and make this a priority,” he said. “People can be cynical about Generation Z. When you see these students and their service mentality, it’s very encouraging.

Jasmine Haraburda, center, tests a blood pressure monitor on fellow student Julian Narvaez.

“There’s a need for supplies in places globally that don’t have the funds or access. These devices we’re working on aren’t defective. They should be utilized.”

Afra Syed

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