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Biomedical engineering service learning course helps abroad and at home

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Chris Largaespada learned how to take apart and repair donated wheelchairs through a VCU service learning course. (Photo courtesy College of Engineering)

Students taking a new service learning course in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering are gaining hands-on skills in repairing medical equipment to help patients in need, both locally and overseas in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Chris Largaespada, a biomedical engineering and applied mathematics double major in his junior year, learned how to take apart and fix motorized wheelchairs last spring by shadowing the biomedical equipment technicians who keep VCU Health System medical equipment running.

Last month, Largaespada traveled to the public hospital on the southern Caribbean island of St. Vincent to see firsthand how he and other VCU biomedical engineering students could provide future assistance.

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Patrick Link designed the course. “We wanted to bring the idea of biomedical engineering to regional communities that don’t have access to the kind of equipment that others do,” he said.

To connect students with professionals in the field, Link looked across campus where Keith Chapman, director of clinical engineering for VCU Health System, was eager to groom future biomedical engineering volunteers. Chapman found that the Richmond chapter of the Foundation for Rehabilitation Equipment and Endowment needed volunteers who had the electronic and mechanical skills to fix donated wheelchairs. The foundation reissues wheelchairs to residents who cannot afford them.

Chapman said the students should take pride in knowing the wheelchairs they repaired have given people mobility and independence.

“That’s a beautiful feeling. It really is,” Largaespada said.

In addition to the cross-campus and local partnerships, Link worked with the Richmond-based World Pediatric Project to build a relationship between VCU Engineering and the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital on St. Vincent.

Ross Silkman, program director of international teams for the World Pediatric Project, said the organization has been providing pediatric specialty care at the hospital since 2001.

“They’re on an island, so everything’s geographically isolated,” he said. “You’re working in a place with extreme weather, with humidity challenges we don’t face up here. When things break, you’re in a place with low resources. It’s tough to get parts.”

Presenting such challenges to the students in the class led to some innovative projects. For instance, Link said, “Our students this year helped develop a water filter to try to improve the quality of water that was going into their autoclave — which sterilizes their equipment — to extend its useful life.”

Link said he hopes to expand the course to more students, including other majors, and plans to return to St. Vincent with a larger group next year to work for several weeks. A former U.S. Army staff sergeant, Link said he has seen the need for health services from the Philippines to Afghanistan. While medical technology may be available in these areas, “we have populations who don’t have the economic ability to afford it,” he said. “Trying to bring health care to local people is what drove me to do this.”

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.