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Jane Chen uses her non-profit to help vulnerable babies, now focusing efforts on Ukraine

by Corrie Martin, AsAmNews Contributor

A harrowing message reached Santa Cruz, California-resident Jane Chen nearly two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

My name is Iryna Kondratova,” the message read. “In peacetime, I am the Head of the Regional Perinatal Centre [in Kharkiv, Ukraine]. It is a special maternity hospital that provides medical care for pregnant women with severe abnormalities, cures premature births, and helps babies who are born not entirely healthy.

Kondratova’s message provided Chen a first-hand account of the toll of Russian violence on Ukraine’s children and pregnant women. It also gave her a glimpse into the resilience and courage of the hospital’s staff.

We evacuated all pregnant mothers and children to the basement on the first day of the war,” Kondratova wrote in her message. “The fear that was there for the first couple of days has been replaced by a fanatical desire to keep doing our job no matter what.” 

Some 6,000-plus miles from the city of Kharkiv, Chen had been watching the news coverage in horror for weeks. Footage of Russian bombs and troops destroying Ukraine’s hospitals and maternity wards caused particular anguish. 

The biggest challenge is the children’s intensive care unit,” Kondratova told Chen. “It has everything necessary to save the lives of babies weighing 500 grams [just over one pound]. But unfortunately, it is impossible to transport these children anywhere. We stayed here when our main square was bombed. It’s just about 50 meters away.” 

Kondratova’s email included a plea for help.

We deliver babies both during the bombings and in the basement,” she wrote. “After all, births do not depend on whether there is an air raid or not. So the main thing we need at the moment is equipment to help transport and warm extremely premature babies.

Chen, a co-founder of a non-profit organization that provides baby incubators called Embrace Global, was ready and able to answer Kondratova’s plea.

“It’s our responsibility here in America and around the world to respond to this urgent need to help a child on their first day of their life,” Chen tells AsAmNews, adding, “Ukraine’s babies are being born into the most devastating situation imaginable.”

The team at Embrace Global has innovated the world’s first portable incubator, an ingenious solution to what was once seen as an intractable problem. 

Chen, a co-founder of a non-profit organization that provides baby incubators called Embrace Global, was ready and able to answer Kondratova’s plea. Baby incubators save lives, but access to them is often limited or impossible. Traditional incubator machines are unwieldy, costly and complicated to manufacture. They are also reliant upon a steady electricity source.

Embrace Global’s life-saving solution—a reheatable, reusable wax pouch that is placed inside a sleeping bag fitted for a premature infant— has already saved hundreds of thousands of babies around the world for a minuscule fraction of the cost of traditional incubators. 

A woman holds a baby wrapped in Embrace Global’s portable incubator.

What began as a design challenge for a class project— create low-cost, life-changing technology for people living on less than a dollar a day—took on a life of its own for Chen. In 2008 after earning her MBA at Stanford, Chen took her prototype to India, home to 40% of the world’s premature babies, and stayed for the next four years to work on design, testing, and production of the product. The Embrace team developed a portable incubator that is portable, cost-effective, and easy to make, ship, and use. At less than 1% of the cost of a traditional incubator, it’s a game-changer in the effort to reduce infant mortality around the world.

To date, the Embrace incubator is estimated to have saved 350,000 young lives in 22 countries. It is now helping save lives in Ukraine.

With over 1,000 births occurring daily in Ukraine, many taking place in bomb shelters or, as in the case of Kharkiv’s Regional Perinatal Centre, in makeshift basement shelters under other privations of war, it is likely that Ukraine’s premature birth rate has actually doubled since the invasion. 

“After performing a survey of needs on the ground, Unicef informed us that a minimum of 3,000 portable incubators are needed immediately to meet the needs of the youngest victims of Russia’s invasion,” Chen says.

Chen and Embrace Global quickly mobilized to arrange for the first 200 portable incubators to be made and shipped to Ukraine. They also launched a campaign to raise the $600,000 needed to make and ship an additional 3000 incubators. Within a few days the campaign has raised more than $250,000 towards its goal. 

“I am hoping more people in the Asian American community, and particularly our youth, will step up and speak out against the model minority myth, and use our collective power to be more visible in struggles for justice and in global issues like the invasion of Ukraine,” adds Chen, who also writes and speaks about leadership, design-thinking, and resilience. 

Visit the GoFundMe page to support the campaign to provide 3,000 Embrace Baby Incubators to Ukraine.

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