In the U.S., we take it for granted that our health care providers will use brand new gloves and sterilized equipment. In fact, it’s required by law.
But that’s not the reality in developing countries, where all too often, aid workers are forced to wash surgical gloves for reuse the next day.
Dr. Lee Ponsky, a doctor based in Cleveland, Ohio, had to do just that—and string fishing line to use as sutures — during his mission work as a surgical assistant in Nigeria. The lack of basic supplies and sterilization inspired him to start MedWish International, a Cleveland, Ohio-based nonprofit that collects and sends surplus medical equipment to nations in need.
By partnering with several health care systems throughout Northeast Ohio, including the Cleveland Clinic, they are able to find and store donated items from both hospitals and individuals.
“If someone’s loved one passed away, and they had supplies leftover that they can’t send back, or if they broke their leg one time and had some crutches laying around the garage, those items are donated to us,” said Chance DeWerth, Director of Operations for the nonprofit.
Much of the surplus—last year, they collected 600,000 pounds of supplies and shipped nearly 300,000 of them overseas—comes from hospitals who must continually upgrade their equipment or dispose of supplies with looming expiration dates. Expiration dates have to be at least a year out to ship materials, to avoid what the World Health Organization considers “dumping.”
“A lot of times, they’ll just have more stuff than they’re able to use in a certain amount of time,” adds DeWerth. “So instead of them throwing those items away and ending up in the landfill, they’re still obviously useful.”
Not only useful, but life-saving. MedWish coordinates “medical brigades” to provide basic, yet critically needed, healthcare to people in remote locations that lack access to medical services. During these missions, they operate mobile clinics where simple procedures and medical supplies can make the difference in children’s survival.
DeWerth went on a weeklong brigade to Guatemala armed with 50 duffle bags full of supplies like basic wound care, surgical items, gloves, and medicines.
“Those people are just ecstatic to be able to get those type of items,” he said.
The supplies clearly help in the treatment of those in need, while also helping to protect the environment by diverting unnecessary waste from landfills.
In addition to repurposing, MedWish participates in alternative recycling and reprocessing. Alternative recycling includes providing items like drapes, gowns, gauze, and gloves to animal shelters and nursing schools and other educational programs.
“Another emerging industry is reprocessing to try to keep things out of landfills that are perfectly good items that just are expired,” said DeWerth, who adds that MedWish often sends unused surgical instruments or sutures to a reprocessor to resterilize them and add a new expiration date.
MedWish is not alone in its mission. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Global Links also collects surplus medical supplies and administrative furnishings, then sends them to developing countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The organization works closely with the Pan American Health Organization to determine which public health projects can benefit from humanitarian aid.
Supplying a single health post in rural Nicaragua can serve more than 30,000 people per year, and providing sutures to training surgeons in Uganda not only helps the patient, but makes continuing education of healthcare workers possible.
Global Links has helped a new mom in Bolivia with a bag of baby care items as an incentive for receiving prenatal care and having an attended birth, a young graduate from the Latin American School of Medicine travel back to Haiti with a backpack stocked with supplies, and a psychiatric patient in Honduras wear clean scrubs to work instead of soiled clothing.
The organization collects an average of 250 tons of surplus material from 45 healthcare institutions each year, and operates its Our Community Partners Program to support domestic organizations in need of medical aid.
“Materials given to an individual through a Community Partner agency serve one person, such as a nebulizer or walker,” says Global Links Development Manager Maura O’Neill, “Yet also helps an entire family by restoring health or mobility for that individual family member.”
Both MedWish and Global Links rely on thousands of volunteers to put in countless hours sorting and packing the materials for shipment.
“Since the first day, I was hooked,” says Mary Regan, who’s been a Global Links volunteer since 2009. “I truly feel that I am making a difference in the world.”
Regan spends several hours bagging sutures for facilities that use them for both patients and surgical training. She says many recipients send letters and pictures with stories of the people they’ve helped.
“I can’t tell you how powerful it is to actually see the faces of the individuals who have been helped by the sutures I have handled,” said Regan. “Many times as I seal a box for shipment I can’t help but think of a smiling face opening the box at the other end.”
Volunteer Christopher Meyer also spends several hours a week repairing and restoring wheelchairs to be shipped to those in need. Inspired by his late wife’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, he wants to help others struggling with mobility.
“As I age, I more appreciate the importance of access to healthcare,” says Meyer. “Some have none.” He cites Global Link’s mission of working “toward a day when no one will die for lack of what others throw away.”
Featured photo courtesy of Global LinksShare this article: