Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is setting up their makeshift inflatable hospital in Gorkha, the rural epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the Himalayan nation ten days ago.
Médecins Sans Frontières brought three to Nepal, each with over 1,000 square feet of floor space. Each inflatable tent module arrives deflated, folded up like a body bag that could fit a dead ox (An ox that led a good life, because each bag is 2,600 pounds). It takes about 10 people to carry it from the plane to a truck, and then from the truck to the hospital site, which will have a solid floor made of asphalt or a special set of platforms.
Within each tent, sheets of rubber are sewn between huge tubes that work like ribs. Those long, rectangular panels have grommets for hanging up room partitions, and once the structure is complete, volunteers can throw up partitions for different operating rooms, including heat or AC. (While the inflatable tents will mostly be operating rooms, inpatients will be housed in dozens of traditional canvas and pole tents on the grounds of the pop up-hospital.)
Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Nepal relief effort started in a warehouse in Bordeaux, France. No packing was necessary: All the surgical supplies the teams needed were available in pre-packed kits, including gauze, sutures, antibiotics, bags of fluid, and settings for broken bones. Those are the basics. But they had also pre-packed beds, lights, bag stands, and all the other furniture you and I take for granted in an operating room (because we’re usually knocked out on anesthetics). “This is logical, working in kits. You can send anything from Europe to be 100 percent autonomous,” says Michel Olivier Lacharité, logistics director for MSF’s operations in Nepal.
Developed in 2005, the blow-up tents were born to fit this logistical model. “We faced the need to be very operational, to be able to start surgery in every context,” says Lacharité. Traditional, army-style tents can only get so big before they become too cumbersome for fast disaster response. “The regular tents are also bad in terms of hygiene and infection control”, he says. The blow-up is big enough to give surgical teams plenty of elbow room, and the rubber walls are easy to scrub.
Médecins Sans Frontières has used inflatable hospital tents in many major disaster relief efforts in the last decade. “We sent it to Pakistan for their earthquake, to South Sudan for their war, Indonesia’s earthquake, Nigeria, Gaza Strip, Sri Lanka, Haiti, the Philippines, and now Nepal,” says Lacharité. The tents are most successful after natural disasters, he says, but only because bullets and shrapnel don’t mix so well with inflatables.