Wayne Chang (’10 Civ. Eng.) is a civil engineer with a passion for international disaster relief and humanitarian work.
His first three missions with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières were overseas: at refugee camps in Tanzania, a clinic in South Sudan, and a hospital along the border between South Sudan and Sudan.
This time was different.
His fourth assignment with the global medical aid organization took place in U.S. territory. Chang used vacation time and unpaid leave from his job at Boeing in Everett to help with the nonprofit’s COVID-19 response in Puerto Rico. From April to July 2020, he used his expertise to carry out a number of projects, including designing and building a shower trailer to give homeless Puerto Ricans a place to bathe and maintain hygiene practices to help limit the spread of the virus.
Doctors Without Borders is known for its international work with disease outbreaks and in conflict zones and areas of the world where people lack access to health care. When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the emergency organization also responded stateside with Native peoples in the American Southwest as well as with other underserved populations in Florida, New York, Michigan, Texas, and Puerto Rico, where Doctors Without Borders distributed more than 5,000 hygiene kits.
For the mobile shower unit, Chang aimed to use materials readily available in Puerto Rico to ensure future maintenance could be handled without relying on shipments from the mainland. Parts were scarce. “I’m used to working in low-resource areas where you can’t just walk into a Costco or Walmart and grab what you need,” he says. “But there were shortages across the island. The biggest hurdle was just securing supplies, trying to find and buy parts.”
Because of this, Chang had to keep changing specifications, and the project took longer than planned. While the build itself only took about a week, the entire job took more than a month and a half.
While troubleshooting and securing parts, Chang also managed logistics for the response team and drove medical personnel from house to house to visit homebound, elderly, sick, and low-income patients. “I made sure the doctors and nurses had what they need to do their jobs,” says Chang, who was a member of Engineers Without Borders and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics as a Washington State University undergraduate. He worked in the Biosystems Engineering Laboratory and one of his early jobs was in hazardous waste.
“I still had some of the gear—a mask, gloves—from like ten years ago and just dug it out of the closet,” says Chang, who also prepped for the Puerto Rico mission by reading documents from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control.
Throughout his stay, Puerto Rico was under strict lockdown. “They had a 7:00 p.m. curfew for the entire island,” he says. “You weren’t even supposed to be out wandering around during the day. You were allowed to go shopping and buy food, but that was about it. In terms of reinforcement, there were police officers pretty much everywhere.”
Chang and the rest of the response team distributed nearly 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment and conducted training on infection prevention and how to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus at nearly two dozen health facilities, detention centers, schools of nursing, as well as among high-risk populations. Another project: upgrading the kitchen at an elementary school where local women were cooking meals for families with food insecurity during the lockdown. The team also worked with local partners to provide home health consultations and pop-up clinics in and around San Juan as well as remote areas of the island.
The pandemic, Chang says, “just magnifies all the issues”—hunger, health care, food and supply chain shortages, transportation, and poverty among them.
He got into international aid work in 2013 after Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, flying there on his own time and dime. “One person on the flight was from Doctors Without Borders. He introduced me around to other NGOs, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” says Chang, who worked as an independent field engineer for a couple of months before landing back-to-back gigs managing water and other projects with Save the Children International and Oxfam in Ormoc City, Leyte Island. In all, he spent a year in the Philippines, coordinating infrastructure support for daycares, schools, and clinics, and repairing and rebuilding water systems in the wake of the typhoon.
His work in the Philippines led to his first stint with Doctors Without Borders in 2015. In Mayom, South Sudan, he served as a water and sanitation engineering manager, supporting a clinic. He designed living units inside the clinic compound, drafted plans for future expansion, and wrote long-term engineering plans for pivoting from emergency to standard operations.
“The first-mission dropout rate is really high,” Chang says. “A lot of people don’t make it past the first mission. You have to prove you’re willing to go where there’s no electricity, no flushing toilets, and no luxury. You have to show you’re able to put your head down and just work through it. It’s not glamorous.”
In 2016, he returned to South Sudan, working to make sure a hospital along the border with Sudan had adequate water and supplies. From fall 2016 to spring 2017, he worked at the Nduta and Nyarugusu refugee camps in Tanzania, where he designed and implemented water, sanitation, and other projects.
He’s already looking forward to his next mission and plans to keep working in international aid as long as he can.
“My retirement job is going to be Doctors Without Borders,” he says. “I always wanted to do it. It seemed so cool to travel and help people out.”