Medical Student Saving Lives with Baking Soda in Haiti

Posted in GUMC Stories

Imagine the dangers of cooking inside your home on a charcoal stove while your young children play at your feet. That’s the deadly reality of many living in Haiti where kitchen fires quickly get out of hand leading devastating burns that leave many, especially children, maimed and in excruciating pain. It’s a situation that future doctor David Weiner (M’14) witnessed during a medical mission trip to Haiti in 2011. What he saw spurred him to start what he came to call “The Baking Soda Project.”

As stated on its website, “The Baking Soda Project is dedicated to providing elegant, affordable and sustainable solutions to combat fires, burns and disease in underserved countries.” The idea is simple: in the absence of fire extinguishers, baking soda can provide an effective way to extinguish a small grease fire before it can spread. But Weiner knew it would take more than just a box of baking soda to make a change.

This summer, we checked in with the third-year medical student to find out about the progress of The Baking Soda Project, a year after its start.

How did The Baking Soda Project come about?

The project started last summer [2011] when I was on a medical mission trip to the CRUDEM Foundation’s Hôpital Sacré Coeur led by Washington, D.C.-area plastic surgeon Dr. Al Fleury (M’74, R’80), breast cancer surgeon Dr. Colette Magnant (R’86) and local internist Dr. Andrew Umhau (R’88). While there, I worked with Dr. David Milzman (M’86) associate professor of emergency medicine at Georgetown.

We were struck by the number of severe burn victims that were being admitted. Dr. Milzman explained how in past years, many of the patients Dr. Fleury had cared for were burn patients, especially children. In fact, he and Dr. Magnant had recieved a grant in 2010 to purchase a skin grafting device for use in the hospital.
It was Dr. Milzman who suggested we look into the cause of the burn injuries more closely. (Dr. Milzman is also director of student research at the School of Medicine and director of emergency medicine research at Washington Hospital Center). We found that most burns were caused by indoor cooking fires that would spread and cause fully involved house fires resulting in severe and fatal burns. After returning home, I contacted CRUDEM about sending over baking soda boxes to be used as makeshift fire extinguishers to protect the families and their homes. They loved the idea and since then it has taken off.

The Baking Soda Project is fairly straight forward. Can you explain?

Boxes of baking soda can be purchased for under $1 each in bulk. We label the boxes with special instructions written in Haitian Creole and with easy-to-understand graphics explaining how and when to use the baking soda. The boxes are sent to the hospital where we volunteered on shipments containing medical supplies, and are then distributed out of the hospital free of charge. Additionally, we have volunteers take the boxes to less accessible houses in the mountains so that families who do not travel near the hospital regularly also receive them.

There’s more to this effort than just sending baking soda. Tell us what else you’re working on.

The Baking Soda Project is not just about passing out fire extinguishers, it is about combating a leading cause of human injury and illness in Haiti by promoting the ability of a strong community to collectively say, “enough” and protecting themselves and each other through education and preventative measures.

Education and community involvement are necessary for the adoption of safer cooking practices. Although many know are aware of the high rates of burns and fires from cooking stoves, there is no plan in place to make a change. It is one of our objectives to both implement and support education and awareness throughout the community. We have teamed up with the Burn Advocates Network (a nonprofit organization that supports burn survivors in several countries, including Haiti) to help establish a grade school education program and poster campaign promoting safe cooking practices. It is our hope that by educating young children about the dangers of fire and unsafe cooking practices, we can reduce the number of injuries in this over represented group of victims.

Why are kitchen fires seemingly more common in Haiti?

Most people cook on charcoal stoves located inside the homes in Haiti. Excess fuel, someone accidentally knocking the stoves over, or leaving the stove unattended are just a few of the ways that fires become out of control and cause injury or death.

How did you come up with this idea?

I spent many years as a volunteer firefighter before medical school in Abington, Pennsylvania. During my training, we were taught about the beneficial effect that baking soda has on grease/cooking fires. This is where the idea to use the baking soda came from and why I took such an interest in these burn victims to begin with.

What has The Baking Soda Project achieved in its first year and what are your future goals?

So far we have successfully sent over 1000 pounds of baking soda. With the help of Dr. Milzman and graduate student Chris Fleury, we have initiated a study within the community to assess the level of fire safety awareness, how the residents believe the incidents occur, and the willingness to accept intervention. Preliminary results are encouraging, and we believe that there is a real opportunity to make a quantifiable difference in the rates of injury and death that are caused by these fires.

How can people help?

People can visit our website, and make a donation or just spread the word about the project!

What’s next for you?

I just started my third year at the School of Medicine and started on the internal medicine rotation at Virginia Hospital Center. I am very excited for the opportunity to participate in patient care. I have truly enjoyed the transition from lecturers and classrooms to having the patient as my teacher and the clinic as my classroom. I hope to pursue a career in trauma surgery.

By Karen Mallet, GUMC Communications
(Published August 29, 2012)