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Father of invention

In wartorn Iraq, Wisam Breegi saved his son. Now, he's developing an incubator to help babies around the world.

By Erin Graham

Photos by Matthew Modoono

On a cold, dark February morning in the town of Bakoba, in the Diyala province in Iraq, Wisam Breegi found himself scrambling outside of a bombed-out hospital, searching for twigs to build a fire that would keep his newborn son from freezing.

It was 1991, two weeks before the First Gulf War ended. A ragtag hospital crew was trying its best to care for five women in labor — there were no other hospitals nearby — despite having no heat or electricity and few medical supplies. When Breegi was called in to see his wife, Sada, and their son, Danny, he could tell even in the candlelight that Danny was dark blue. The baby’s body temperature had dropped and the hospital’s incubators were useless without electricity. “It was paralyzing — I was completely helpless,” Breegi says.

A nurse shouted at him to gather kindling and, despite sporadic gunfire and bombing in the darkness outside, Breegi filled a steel container with enough sticks to douse with alcohol and light a small fire. They held it close to Danny, and his body temperature rose enough so they could take him to their car, where they cranked the heater.

The desperate move worked. Danny survived. And now, more than two decades later, Breegi is developing a medical device that would save the lives of babies like him: a disposable, highly affordable neonatal intensive care incubator (NICI), designed to be used in the most rural parts of the world.

If these NICI succeed, they will represent a novel approach to life-saving care for fragile infants. They are the first incubators designed for low-resource settings with the features of modern intensive care incubators, such as warming, phototherapy, respiratory support, humidity, protection from infections and even Wi-Fi. They can run on any source of electricity, including battery, solar, bicycle — even from a car battery.

“I went to Google Images and looked up ‘incubator in 1915’ — they haven’t changed in 100 years. It’s still a large, expensive, plastic box.”

And yes, Danny Breegi was inspiration for them — though not in the way you might think.

In 2013, Danny, by then in his 20s, was studying neonatal mortality in rural India while earning his Master’s in Global Public Health from Boston University. He shared troubling statistics with his father: Each year, millions of babies die around the world. And most pre-term babies could be saved with the kind of immediate care that incubators can provide.

Breegi was struck by the statistic, and it fueled his mission to create incubators for these millions of children.

“My dad didn’t connect the dots until I reminded him a few months ago about the whole story of my birth,” Danny laughs. “He thought about it and said, ‘Yes, we were in bad state, weren’t we!’ He’s so focused on other people that he didn’t even think of his own experience.”

Wisam Breegi is a deep thinker who seems equal parts pragmatic and emotional. He booms with enthusiasm, is partial to colorful metaphors, and goes off on richly detailed tangents about humanitarian crises around the world.

And he’s clear about the root of his passion: his identity as a Mandaean, an ancient non-Arab, pre-Christian ethnoreligion with origins in the Middle East, based on the teachings of John the Baptist.

Mandaean means “People of Knowledge” in old Aramaic, and its practitioners are known for their love of science and art. Throughout history, Mandaeans have been a persecuted minority, and their numbers have been shrinking; there are now only about 60,000 Mandaeans in the world. Yet they have actively maintained a love-thy-neighbor philosophy. A main pillar of the faith is to seek out injustice and fight it with knowledge, never violence.

“We learn from an early age how to be thinkers, and how to make something better, how to make people around you happier,” Breegi says. “If there is a problem, we need to understand it and get involved in solving it.”

Breegi and his family had been persecuted in Iraq because of their Mandaean heritage, at times more severely than others, depending on the political and social circumstances. Still, Breegi became a cerebral young entrepreneur and successful veterinarian who was a favorite of pet-owning Baghdad diplomats, one of whom had tipped him off about the possibility of airstrikes to the city. (Breegi had once gone out of his way, even interrupting his honeymoon, to save the diplomat’s dog when it had been poisoned.)

So during the Gulf War, he and Sada shuttered their Baghdad home and moved into a ramshackle building in the countryside to wait out the worst of the chaos — which is what they were doing when the baby came.

The hospital was a 45-minute drive from their temporary home. As a political refugee — he was a vocal critic of Saddam Hussein and pacifist despite the mandatory military draft — Breegi was just as afraid of being stopped by military police as by the bandits who roamed the byways. Because of a mandatory blackout, he wasn’t supposed to turn on his headlights, but the moonless night and twisting back roads made it necessary, and he knew this made them obvious targets.

“As crazy as it sounds, I thought that if things went badly, I’d hit the gas, not stop, and literally jump the border into Iran,” he says. “I thought that no matter what happened it would be better than being captured in Iraq. If you’re likely to be 100 percent dead or 90 percent dead, you go with the 90. I had a solution!”

They made it to the hospital, though, and found that it was in terrible shape: A missile had struck it just days before Danny’s birth. But the destruction isn’t what Breegi remembers most.

“For us, the hospital was heaven, even though it was pretty much abandoned,” he says. “There were a few people there. It’s like your bottle of water is gone and suddenly there is a little stream.”

The Breegis’ lives ricocheted in unexpected directions after the war. First, they arranged to leave Iraq discreetly for Jordan. But Jordan wasn’t much safer — it was the backyard of Mokhbarat, the Iraqi intelligence. “I was under constant threat that Jordanian Saddam loyalists and Arab nationalists would inform on me about my whereabouts,” Breegi says.

Then, when Danny was four months old, the family left for Spain, thanks again to the connections Breegi made with diplomats. After a year, they moved to the United States, where Breegi earned his post-doc in gastroenterology and started a medical research career.

Years later, in 2008, he took a hiatus from his lucrative job at a biotech firm to devote himself full-time to the plight of the Mandaeans, who had lost their protections in Iraq after the 2003 Gulf War. Breegi lobbied at the fourth human rights conference in Geneva and at the U.S. State Department to recognize the Mandean crisis. He worked to relocate thousands of Mandaeans to America, and built the foundation of a Mandaean community in his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.

When Danny finished graduate school, Breegi decided that the time was right to turn his attention back to medical device innovation. He founded a company, Breegi Scientific, and launched a single project: the NICI.

“I went to Google Images and looked up ‘incubator in 1915’ — they haven’t changed in 100 years,” he says. “It’s still a large, expensive, plastic box.”

So he invested his own money and pulled together a group of businessmen and researchers — including Danny — to make the NICI a reality. For several years, the core team members have volunteered their time, buoyed by Breegi’s conviction that they can create an incubator as world-class as those in the United States — using his own patented devices and software and hardware built from scratch. 

“At first, lots of people thought I was insane, especially when it came to economic feasibility,” he says. “But that didn’t answer the question of, ‘Why are we leaving millions of babies to die?’ Because we might not be making money?”

In a sense, it was a callback to other times of his life: his history of taking risks and not worrying if they’d pan out.

“Life is like a cup — you don’t see how much water is in it while you’re pouring it in,” Breegi says. “It’s not a one-moment thing, when it’s suddenly full. The water, like a company or an idea, is cumulative. When your cup is full and it starts to spill over, you can see what you’ve accomplished.”

Now, after years of development, Breegi Scientific is on the verge of putting its incubators in the field. The company has raised more than half a million dollars and successfully built and tested the proof-of-concept technology. The team has engaged a professional engineering firm to validate the NICI prototype and will soon be building 60 units to test in city-based hospitals in Honduras. Each hospital sees about 420 births a month, and an average of 30 percent of these newborns need intensive care.

“None of the hospitals have a fully functioning incubator,” says Breegi. “We are expecting this trip to save over 100 babies.”

Breegi Scientific also plans to raise $3 million to support clinical trials in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. At the U.S.-China Health Summit last September, the company was awarded a trip to Chengdu, China, where it is pursuing a collaboration with the Sichuan province government.

It’s all a step closer to Breegi’s vision of putting battery-powered incubators in every rural hospital on the planet. And his son Danny, who inherited his father’s optimism, says he isn’t surprised that his father’s idea has come this far.

“I think people gravitate toward people who do something honorable because it gives them hope,” says Danny. “It’s what he taught me growing up — if you do good, people will rally around you. Whatever good you put into the world grows into something better.”

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