Following the devastating earthquake in 2010, Haiti now faces another epidemic: cholera, a disease that’s infected more than 530,000 Haitian citizens. Spread through contaminated food or water, cholera kills more than 100,000 people each year despite the fact that, with proper treatment, its fatality rate can be less than 1 percent.

Recognizing the need to bring healthcare options to Haiti, MASS Design Group (MASS) is constructing a new cholera treatment center in Port-au-Prince for GHESKIO. To properly outfit this space, it enlisted our team at Herman Miller Healthcare and Nemschoff, a Herman Miller company, to help design prototypes of beds and chairs for future patients over the course of a week.

Our team of eight did as much preparation as possible to effectively deliver patient-focused solutions for cholera patients within very limited time constraints. Such research included studying the writings and experiences of Dr. Paul Farmer, humanitarian and co-founder of nonprofit healthcare organization Partners in Health, and educating ourselves on the culture and history of Haiti.

Once we landed in Haiti, we immediately toured Port-au-Prince and went to the national museum to get a sense of the country’s citizens and communities. Haitians, who are largely unemployed, were always friendly, with smiles received just as quickly as they were given.

After we got our bearings, we spent a day at the current cholera treatment center (CTC)–a tent–to get a firsthand view of the devastating disease.

From small children to seniors, the CTC was crowded with infected individuals. There, patients begin by sitting on a chair with a hole in it and a five-gallon bucket underneath. The healthcare team monitors their effluvia, and the sickest patients are moved to a cot with a hole cut out over a bucket. Unfortunately, the hole in the cot tends to get bigger over time, and it doesn’t lend itself to the dignity or comfort of people enduring the disease, especially children or smaller adults. Cots have to be sanitized, often several times a day.

At the CTC, we spent time meeting with the lead doctors and nurses of the center to better understand their problems, concerns, and needs. These same individuals would continue to be our sounding board for new ideas throughout the course of this project.

Following our initial discussions with CTC’s staff and firsthand interaction with cholera patients, we met with a small team from MASS and broke into smaller teams to brainstorm potential furnishing solutions. Fusing MASS’ values of local labor and capacity-building with our emphasis on human-centric design, our work culminated with two designs:

Bed prototype: Our bed design uses a “butterfly base” with two wings to support the bed surface. Separating the base from the bed surface means that when the caregivers sanitize the bed, they simply have to carry out the light top surface. We also reinforced the edges of the hole to make it last longer. However, when the bed surface reaches the end of its long useful life, the hospital can replace just that portion and use the same supports, minimizing waste. The supports for the head and foot of the bed are identical, allowing caregivers to easily sanitize, disassemble, and ship them should they need to be redeployed. Our design also has pieces to support an IV pole, which can hold the patient chart and a cup holder to help patients rehydrate themselves.

Chair prototype: Following the same “butterfly” concept, the chairs are now more comfortable and easier to clean than the CTC’s current furnishings. Like the bed, the chair is designed to support patients in healthy postures, preserve patient dignity, streamline caregivers’ tasks and limit the spread of infection. Both designs still rely on five-gallon buckets to collect the waste, as they’re plentiful, cheap, and easy to sanitize.

Once we finalized our concepts, Maxima, a local manufacturer in Port-au-Prince, allowed us to use its factory and equipment to create prototypes. To enhance Haiti’s economic health, we used locally made materials and developed a furniture fabrication plan to train local workers, ensuring that furnishings are made in Haiti and not the United States.

Our goal is to start fabricating in time for MASS’ new treatment center, opening in March 2013. We’re also documenting the assembly process in a graphic format so the furniture can be used anywhere there happens to be a cholera outbreak, no matter what language the people speak.

One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with the kids at the elementary school next to the hospital. Our team came to Haiti with a blank House of Cards (the slotted, interlocking cards designed by Charles and Ray Eames) and we asked the kids to decorate the cards with their hopes for Haiti. We came back with several hundred cards, which we’ve put in our showroom as a reminder of the bigger world and the aspirations of children everywhere. It’s a connection to the people in the community and a symbol of hope for the future. Good health is a hope we have for all people, in all places.