While a researcher and fertility specialist at Duke University, David Walmer went on a volunteer mission to Haiti. He was asked to spend a week with a local obstetrician-gynecologist, where he witnessed gruesome health conditions, including watching a woman die of septic shock due to undiagnosed cervical cancer. When he asked the local OB/GYN what he needed help with the most, the answer was cervical cancer.
With no particular expertise in cervical cancer, Walmer went back to Duke to learn more about the disease from his colleagues. What he found is that Haiti would benefit most from effective screening methods. Colposcopes, which are used to confirm the diagnosis of cervical cancer, are simply too expensive, require reliable electricity and are too big to move from clinic to clinic.
“I really felt a calling,” Walmer told the New York Times. “I was having more fun helping the Haitians than I was at my real job,” he recalls. “You could operate and save a woman’s life, and every time you came back to Haiti, she would come to the clinic and hug you and introduce you to her family members.”
What Walmer created is portable and doesn't need electricity to work. But, the gadget was still too heavy, so, after closing his lab at Duke, he enlisted the help of Bob Malkin who was leading a student organization called Engineering World Health. The organization has a goal of improving the hospital conditions in the developing world.
"They realized we’d been through lots of renditions, and they realized they were coming in after degreed, Duke University engineers who had volunteered their time," Walmer says. "They were all pretty excited. They thought, 'We are solving a real-world problem.'"
The students reached out to doctors around the world, but ultimately wanted to stick to the needs of the doctors in Haiti. Because cost was a major issue, the students used cheap parts bought at Walmart. Eventually, Walmer was approached by an engineering firm called Applied Technologies, who wanted to refine the product so it could be mass produced.
The end result is the cerviscope, a gadget that is small, portable and doesn't need electricity to be effective. Doctors wear it on their heads, and look through binocular-type lenses to examine the cervix.
“I love taking a problem, problem solving and bringing together people who can go back and forth over time to solve that problem,” Walmer says. “Working in Haiti is a slow, steady process, so this matched up with it.”
In September 2009, 13 years after the first cerviscope model was created, there was finally 10 models ready to be field tested.
Walmer's non-profit Family Health Ministries will be selling the scopes to healthcare providers in developing nations. Their goal is to have them priced under $750. The organization has also set up an HPV lab in Haiti, and want to start a brand new Mother's Day tradition of getting cervical screenings.
"Life has a way of detouring," Walmer says. "Preventing cervical cancer was never my plan. And yet I think this was better than the plan I ever had for my own life."