CURE Afghanistan: Using technology to heal women and children in Kabul

This is a guest post written by Joel Worrall, CTO of CURE, a global nonprofit network of charitable hospitals and surgical programs. CURE provides treatment for children with conditions like clubfoot, bowed legs, cleft lips, untreated burns, and hydrocephalus.

In February 2012, I had the privilege of spending a week at the CURE International Hospital in Afghanistan. I’ve travelled a decent amount for work and never felt unsafe, but flying into Kabul over the mountains at 5AM (9.5 hrs ahead of EST), I had pause for concern.

With a foot of snow on the ground and the scars of decades of war, the airport looked less like an international transport hub than a Soviet-era government compound. For the first time, the thought crossed my mind, “Was this really a good idea?”

But soon after stepping off the plane, any fears I had dissipated as I met regular people trying to get on with daily life. Afghanistan is the definition of a war-torn country, but the Afghan people are warm and generous, and soon enough the physically unfamiliar setting of Kabul was replaced by the familiar welcome that I’ve come to expect at a CURE hospital.

It’s hard to explain, but a CURE hospital is a very special place. Despite how cliche it sounds, it really is an oasis of hope. Life in Afghanistan can be very difficult, but at CURE, things are different.

Entrance to CURE International Hospital in Kabul, the Hindu Kush mountains in the background (Feb. 2012)

As our team entered the hospital, we were immediately surrounded by greetings in English, Dari, and Pashto as well as the hustle and bustle you’d expect from a busy hospital on the outskirts of a city. This was another busy week at CURE Kabul.

Women from throughout the rural provinces who’ve suffered with fistula conditions were receiving the surgical care they needed, restoring their dignity and their place within their families and communities. Children born with cleft lip and cleft palate were being treated by the finest plastic surgeon in the country. Premature newborns, who 10 years ago would have had little hope for survival, were being nursed to health in CURE’s Neonatal ICU. Afghan doctors, men and women who were already gifted medical practitioners, were being mentored by the most capable training program in the region to become some of the best physicians in the country. Staff members of all races, religions, and ethnic groups in this central-Asian melting pot were working alongside one another for one goal: healing women and children.

Even for a software guy, the experience was emotionally overwhelming. There’s something special happening at the CURE hospital, and somehow, a data nerd like me gets to be a part of it.

CURE’s been in Afghanistan since 2002, and we’ve been operating out of that facility in Kabul since 2005. Like all developing world settings, infrastructure is unreliable, substandard Internet access is way too expensive, and recruiting and maintaining talented IT support is challenging if not impossible. It’s all the things that makes our jobs in the CURE technology team interesting, challenging, and frustrating in the same breath.

I was visiting Afghanistan playing host to on-air talent from two large radio networks who were there to promote CURE’s work around the world. They had told their audience about a little boy from Kabul named Ali who was born with a cleft lip and palate, and their listeners had gone online to help fund his surgery. Now we were there to meet Ali’s mother and father in person, bring greetings from the US, and report directly from the OR on the day of his life-changing surgery. His cleft lip surgery was a big success, the cleft palate surgery that followed six months later was equally so, and a little over a year later, you’d never know that Ali had been a newborn struggling for survival with a surgically-correctable congenital deformity.

You can track through Ali’s journey with CURE here

On the technology side, I was gratified to help thousands of people experience the transformation in Ali’s life using the Internet. The software platform we had created to lift up the stories of the people we serve was brand new, and we were still trying to work out some of the core features. We weren’t prepared to have 5,000 people ask for email updates for one child’s surgery, and we were just stepping into all the complexities that come with scaling an idea into a product. That week helped us recognize our need to get more sophisticated with our tools and platforms, and we began to seek out partners like New Relic to help us be successful. In many ways, we’re still in that “learning phase,” letting people know that these kids exist and that there’s something we can all do to help.

That event almost two years ago was our initial pilot of CUREkids in Kabul, and due to some very understandable complexities unique to Afghanistan, we’re now readying to launch the full program in Kabul this spring. The trip was impactful for me as technology professional, and many of the insights from that week have informed our strategy in everything from communication platforms to network support to electronic medical records.

We’re committed to leveraging the Internet to make a difference in the lives of the 100 million kids and families who can be treated surgically, and we think that – with the right help – we’ve got a “puncher’s chance.”

Right now, I’m in Africa at the CURE Children’s Hospital of Mbale, Uganda, reviewing the effectiveness of both our CUREkids program as well as the pilot of our “offline first” cloud-based medical records system. CURE Uganda is saving the lives of thousands of infants born with deadly neurological conditions every year, and this little hospital is changing the way the world treats hydrocephalus. I can’t wait to share what I’m seeing.

How can you help the cause?

I want to challenge you to do something to help yourself and the kids CURE serves at the same time. New Relic is an awesome product that has made a huge difference in our ability to do a lot with a very small team, and it can absolutely do the same for your platform, product, or service. Throughout the month of November, if you deploy New Relic, Lew and the crew are going to donate $100 towards a life-changing surgery at a CURE hospital in your honor. You fix your app. We heal kids. It’s a win-win.

Interested? Learn more here.'

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