Biomedical engineering service learning course helps abroad and at home

Chris Largaespada repairs a motorized wheelchair
Chris Largaespada learned how to take apart and repair donated wheelchairs through a VCU service learning course.
Chris Largaespada (center) traveled to a hospital in St. Vincent in August to help fix medical equipment
Chris Largaespada (center) traveled to a hospital in St. Vincent in August to help fix medical equipment.

Students taking a new service learning course at the VCU College of Engineering are gaining hands-on skills in repairing medical equipment to help patients in need, both locally in Richmond 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 Virginia Commonwealth University Health System medical equipment running.

Earlier this 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.

The course was designed by biomedical engineering doctoral student Patrick Link. “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 no further than across campus to the VCU Health System, 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 (F.R.E.E.) needed volunteers who had the electronic and mechanical skills to fix donated wheelchairs. The foundation reissues wheelchairs to residents who can’t afford them.

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

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

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 for 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 hoped 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.”