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Improving the World, One Brilliant Idea at a Time

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I don't know about you, but I am constantly amazed at how some of the most mundane activities in life have been transformed with elegant, brilliant solutions. I can pay my bills from anywhere, and I can fill my car with gas without interacting with a human being (except in New Jersey where apparently the government thinks we are not capable of doing this for ourselves). I can ensure that I get an exit row seat on any plane, take photographs in rapid fire and find a date without going anywhere (okay, I don't date since I have been married for almost 24 years). I can shop for absolutely anything from Band-Aids, eyeglasses, shoes, clothes, childcare, furniture or even a car -- all without ever leaving my couch.

But what is really stunning to me is when that genius is applied to solving problems that are hindering people from living healthy, productive lives. I read about, learn of and am amazed by businesses, non-profits, technologies and ideas that leave me speechless (okay for those of you who know me, this might be a bit of a stretch) in terms of the breadth of their impact. These ideas rest on the backs of exceptional people who are literally out in the trenches making stuff happen.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin, a gynecologist by training, whom the NY Times referred to as "21st-century Mother Theresa", stuns me. It turns out that 2MM women worldwide, including teenage moms, experience the pain of obstetric fistula, an injury during labor in which the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and no health care practitioner is available. An astounding 85 percent of babies in Ethiopia are born without nursing or medical care. As a result, many babies often die during childbirth; women are left incontinent, left to deal with the shame, the stigmatization and the physical realities of their condition.

Dr. Hamlin, with her husband, decided the status quo was unacceptable and established a hospital in Ethiopia specifically to repair the fistula injuries sustained by women. And perhaps most important, Dr. Hamlin trained "generations of doctors to repair fistulas and provide a model that has been replicated in other countries." And, in the process she has trained former patients to perform the procedure as well. How can we weigh the cost of a procedure that costs $500 to $1,000 with the human, physical and emotional effect of the incontinence and other symptoms? At 90 years old, Dr. Hamlin is still doing this amazing work. She did not build a new app, a social network or infrastructure solution (which in no way is meant to minimize those who do), but her impact remains profound just the same.

I also had no idea that 1 out of every 750 children born worldwide is born with clubfoot -- and over 1MM in developing countries are not treated. Clubfoot is defined as a congenital condition that causes one or both feet to turn inward and downward. Without proper treatment, many of these children walk only with great difficulty, making clubfoot one of the leading causes of permanent disability in the world. In many countries disability results in illiteracy, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, humiliation and very little opportunity to work, get married or live a decent life."

It is hard to fathom the cruelty that befalls the families whose children are born with clubfoot throughout the developing world. Mothers get thrown out of marriages for having a child seen as defective, left with no income and a disabled child. Girls born with clubfoot in India get thrown in the rivers.

Enter miraclefeet, an organization that was created to provide access to The Ponseti Method, the cost-effective, non-invasive, standard of care for clubfoot. Historically, the only available option (if, and this is big, if, surgeons and money was available) was orthopedic surgery, which yielded poor results. The Ponseti Method involves a series of simple casts, which are changed regularly and supported with a brace worn at night to prevent relapse (think of a retainer for teeth after braces). The treatment is not painful, not surgical and made affordable through donations of $250 per child. miraclefeet has launched and partnered to support the Ponseti Method in 50 clinics in over 12 countries including Brazil, India, Liberia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Tanzania. The organization cleverly partnered with Stanford's Design School, to develop a brace that costs less than $20, so that parents can afford to replace them as their children grow over the course of their treatment.

I have never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Hamlin, but from what I know of her, I imagine her to be a self-effacing, humble, committed, kind and brilliant person who has used her enormous talent to change the world. I have, however, been lucky enough to know Chesca Colleredo-Mansfield, the executive director of miraclefeet, whom I would feel confident saying is cut from the same mold as Dr. Hamlin -- albeit about 45 years later.

With little need for notoriety, enduring grueling travel schedules, armed with a relentless desire to help women, children and families, these two pioneering women have changed the trajectory of families' lives. They are giving them the chance to lead more productive, happier lives, relieving some of the considerable burdens that their circumstances bring.

I am all for the brilliant advancements brought about by technology in every aspect of our lives -- medicine, banking, manufacturing, customer service, publishing -- the list is endless. But I have rarely seen anything more technologically brilliant than combining a good brain, a good heart and a great vision.