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From Wichita To Liberia, A Local Effort To Curb Ebola Epidemic

Original Air Date 9-29-14

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has now claimed the lives of close to 3,000 people. The Center for Disease Control estimates that rates of infection will eclipse a million people by January of next year. A Wichita organization that turns shipping containers into medical clinics is trying to do its part to help keep those numbers from growing. 


Credit Sean Sandefur
Matt Hamer starts the diesel generator on a Clinic in a Can

Matt Hamer of Clinic in a Can unlatches the doors of what, on the outside, appears to be a pearly white shipping container.

But as the heavy steal doors open, it reveals a diesel generator and a smaller door that leads to a medical clinic.

These clinics are often used for natural disasters, but Hamer says he'd like to send one into the heart of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Clinic in a Can is non-profit and faith based, it’s run by members of Hospitals of Hope, which has conducted mission trips for medical treatment in some of the poorest nations in the world. They’ve been converting these shipping containers into medical clinics since 2005. According to Hamer, it was an idea thought up by the group’s founder, Mike Wawrzewski, after a man from Kenya shared a story about his pregnant sister.

"He told me that she got really sick, her family decided they had to take her to the hospital, but the nearest medical facility was really far away and they didn’t have a good way of transporting her there," Hamer says. "They put her in a wheelbarrow and tried to get her to the hospital. She died on the way.”

Credit Sean Sandefur
A Clinic in a Can on display at the company's offices in Wichita

To try and prevent tragedies like this, their answer was to purchase shipping containers for about $3,500 and customize them for a variety of medical needs: dental work, laboratories, pharmacies, exam rooms and even surgery. They can easily be loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to a cargo ship for a long journey overseas. The most basic clinic costs $28,000, others run much higher.

“A full solar clinic is $54,000," Hamer says. "What's great about that, it creates its own energy. You don't have to fill it up with fuel. You can also put it anywhere, as long as there's sunlight. It's a really good option and that's what we're trying to send into Liberia.”

Credit Sean Sandefur
A shipping container is illuminated in Clinic in a Can's workshop

In most cases, organizations purchase these Clinics in a Can in the event of an emergency. They’ve been sent to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; to Moore, Oklahoma after tornados hit in 2013 and to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2010.

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world and Matt Hamer says sending one of their units may help stop the spread of Ebola.

“People know about Ebola, people know this is a terrible disease and it's really scary, but nobody really knows how to help," he says. "There's no big website of 'donate to Ebola' because they're still figuring out how best to fight it.”

They hope to raise $30,000 over a crowd-funding website. That money would cover the clinic, all medical supplies inside, the solar energy panels and shipment to Monrovia, Liberia. The organization has contacts there from previous aid missions. They’re still trying to find the best place to send the clinic, but have no doubt they’ll find a location that can use it for the testing and treatment of the disease.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Kyle Stevens welds together a shelving unit

Kyle Stevens is welding together two pieces of metal inside the workshop where these clinics are fabricated. Sparks fly, and there’s a distinct burning smell in the air.

“We try to tweak every little thing so that outlets are in the right spots, they have the right amount of plumbing and those types of things so it's more applicable to the medical field," he says.

The shop is filled with six container clinics, all in different stages of completion. Being shipping containers, they’re imposing…industrial. But the bright white paint, with red and blue accents, gives away the medical services provided inside. Clinic in Can is building five extra units just to have stock on hand.

“Up until now they've been custom, but we're trying to make it a little easier and streamline it and make just a few different models so it's easier for production, it gets cost down, so we can produce more in a short amount of time,” Stevens says.

Stevens volunteered in Bolivia for a year and a half, helping to construct a hospital there. He says traveling to impoverished parts of the world allows him to understand who he’s building these clinics for. He wants them to be as easily accessible as possible.

I don't want to over design something, or make something that's so complicated that other parts of the world can't deal with it, whether it be technology or hardware or certain systems that they won't be able to maintain,” he says.

Credit Courtesy photo
Pastor Wade Graber

A Firsthand Account  

Pastor Wade Graber operates Graber Ministries in El Dorado. He’s been to Liberia nine times, starting in 1999 during the country’s civil war.

“I got a collect phone call from a Liberian refugee that was in a refugee camp in Ghana, West Africa. He and two friends had gone to a library in the capitol of Ghana and found a registry of churches in the U.S. Each took a phone number and started calling collect and I was one of the numbers," Graber says, "We didn't know if it was a hoax. My wife and I decided to take a risk and connect with him, and short story, he was real and the situation was real.”

Graber has since helped build a number of churches, schools and medical centers throughout Liberia. He says he still has many contacts there and he speaks with them on a regular basis.

“People are dying, [the Ebola outbreak] is worse than we think," he says. "There are those who still, after fourteen years of civil war, even though we’re on the other side of that, still have a lack of trust for government and leadership. They get the virus and sometimes they don't want to go to the officials, they don't want to be quarantined.”

Graber says foreign medical aid is crucial in emergency situations. He has no doubt that something like Clinic in a Can could make a big difference. He’s seen the kind of need the clinics could fill.

“We had people that walked all night--sometimes pregnant ladies carrying babies--to get to a clinic," he says. "So, the more clinics we can get there, the more local we can make them, the greater impact it's going to make.”

Credit Courtesy photo
Pastor Wade Graber

Pastor Graber has witnessed the efforts of Liberia to pull itself out of a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. He says the country has been on the right track, but he’s not sure what effect Ebola will have on its progress.

Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur