A volunteer trip to Ethiopia was a ‘life-changing’ experience for this Northeastern computer science student

Three health care workers review medial images in a hospital lab
Shital Waters (left) helped hospital staffers in Ethiopia with tech issues. Photo Courtesy of Shital Waters

Shital Waters was feeling the self-imposed pressure before her plane landed in Ethiopia. She was hoping to make a positive difference in any way that she could.

“I was a little insecure about it,” says Waters, a graduate student in computer science at Northeastern’s San Francisco campus. 

She departed in January with four doctors from Geisinger Medical Center—including her fiancé, Dr. Darshan Suthar, a gastroenterologist—to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where the medical team provided insight and assistance at hospitals. Waters was the lone tech person on the two-week volunteer trip.

The dream of using tech to leverage her undergraduate degree in biology had inspired her to enroll in Northeastern’s Align program, which makes computer and data science available to graduate students from a wide variety of disciplines.

“When I was thinking of going the medical route, I thought I’d be someone who would be involved in Doctors Without Borders,” Waters says. “Then I switched to tech and I didn’t think I’d ever get an opportunity like that.

“This was my chance.”

She watched from the operating room as Suthar performed endoscopies and other procedures. Waters quickly recognized a hospital software issue that she could address.

Patient procedure reports were being stored initially in a Word document, forcing health care workers to re-enter the information in an Excel spreadsheet. 

“To share the file they would upload it to their personal Google Drives,” says Waters, noting that such a practice would violate privacy laws in the U.S. in addition to making the data vulnerable. “I asked for data from previous years of patients, and they said it was accidentally all deleted.”

Waters created a simple form that health workers have been filling out in Microsoft Access, making the patient reports instantly available for data analysis.

“It involved a lot of research and making sure that everyone is happy and can actually use it,” says Waters, who created a simple manual to help ensure that the health care workers could manage the database after she was gone.

Additionally, Waters learned that doctors were frustrated by an inability to snap and save photos using their endoscopic equipment, which forced them to write complex (and potentially inconsistent) descriptions of tumors and other conditions in a patient’s file. Multiple calls to the equipment manufacturer failed to yield a solution. Waters phoned more than 15 companies asking for help.

“One of them finally got back to me and it was a company in Turkey,” Waters says. “I was saying, ‘This device isn’t sold by your company but I really need help.’ The man was kind enough to go out of his way even though he was dealing with the earthquake that had just happened in Turkey. That was an eye-opening experience, that someone going through their own problems was helping me, and he was able to help start to eventually fix the situation.”

Before leaving Addis Ababa, Waters was able to teach the doctors how to utilize the equipment for still photos as well as video imaging. The access to high-quality images enables the physicians to submit articles to medical journals. And they can use the endoscopy videos to help train new workers. 

“They didn’t have the time to sit there and try to figure out what they can do with this machine,” Waters says. “When we would get to the hospital in the morning, you would see lines out the door of patients waiting to be seen. They come from miles away, walking or taking whatever transportation that they can, and they sit there all in line.”

Local doctors routinely donate a portion of their own salaries to pay for medical procedures that patients couldn’t otherwise afford, says Waters.

In a LinkedIn article, Waters refers to the medical trip as a “life-changing” experience. 

“I hope that I can get Northeastern students to volunteer in developing countries like Ethiopia,” says Waters, who has also been seeking donations via the San Francisco student organization she started, Women in Tech. “I learned that I didn’t need to know everything about computer science to help. It’s all about critical thinking and trying to use all resources—and making sure that giving up is not an option.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.