2010-01-14 / Local & State

Charity Gives New Life To ‘Old’ Medical Equipment


PITTSBURGH (AP) – Boxes of surplus medical equipment sit on shelves in a brick city warehouse. Rows of medical beds occupy another section, not far from dozens of white IV poles.

These outdated and unneeded items likely would have headed to a landfill in the past. But over the years, organizations have been collecting, refurbishing, and sending useable equipment to developing countries which lack even basic medical necessities.

While humanitarian-based donations have long been around, the idea of refurbishing items and keeping goods out of landfills has been gaining ground as more hospitals go green.

“I think it was the idea that things that are getting discarded, that people are literally dying for the lack of overseas, and we’re throwing it away,’’ said Kathleen Hower, executive director of Global Links, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that recently marked its 25th anniversary.

“There’s an enormous need for just basic primary care materials,’’ she said. “If you keep people healthy with primary care, then it cuts down on the need for all that much more sophisticated care later on.’’

U.S. hospitals annually throw out about 2,000 tons of unused medical supplies from operating rooms alone that are worth more than $200 million, according to Global Links.

Cecilia DeLoach, senior manager of sustainable operations at Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit membership group for hospitals committed to environmental sustainability, said while concrete numbers are hard to come by, her group estimates that hospitals discard more than 200 million tons of waste a year.

Generally, hospitals try to figure out how they can generate less trash to begin with or how they can recycle, but “beneficial reuse,’’ such as the work done by groups like Global Links, is growing, she said.

Since its founding, Global Links has gathered more than 3,000 tons of items and sent them to developing countries, including Bolivia, Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica.

Hower began focusing on medical surplus after doing similar humanitarian work with manufacturers. Then she found out that an opthamologist with one of the groups she worked with did volunteer work in Pakistan and would take surplus sutures with him.

“I just started thinking, ‘Wow, if there’s surplus sutures, maybe there’s surplus other stuff, too.’ And it was really incredible. It was like opening up a floodgate,’’ she said.

Dr. William Rosenblatt, a Yale doctor who in 1991 started REMEDY, or Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World, said the reuse movement evolved partially because of problems in the late 1980s with medical waste washing up on beaches, particularly in New Jersey.

After crackdowns on ocean dumping by landfills, hospitals began incinerating medical waste and were treating items that weren’t actually waste as such.

“All these things that we were throwing out in the operating room, which were essentially new, were desperately needed,’’ he said.

Then, as now, the items most needed were surgical gloves, sutures and sponges, he said.

Hower recalled Global Links’ early days, when it consisted of herself and a couple of other people. Its first donation was some 50 or 60 beds from a hospital that was upgrading. Global Links didn’t even have a warehouse, so Hower scrambled to find garage and other places to store them.

Even items like desks, chairs and filing cabinets are in need: Imagine a patient having to wait hours at a clinic with nowhere to sit, or no place for a doctor to store records, Hower said.

“There is a desperate need for those materials because they just can’t afford to buy them. They’re using all their money for medication,’’ she said.

Global Links works with both donors and recipients to ensure appropriate items are being given. A cadre of volunteers sorts and repairs donations.

“We don’t take very sophisticated equipment ... they don’t have a lot of biomedical technicians in these countries,’’ Hower said.

Dr. Jeremy Knight, Port Antonio Regional Health Director in Jamaica, said he worked with Global Links to make sure its shipment contained needed items.

“At the end of the day, nothing that came that was thrown away,’’ he said.

That’s not always the case. He recalls once getting a do- nated ambulance, but said it was in such poor condition, it was unusable. Another time, an X-ray machine was donated, but was basically at the end of its usable life.

For items like gloves and sutures, the term “reuse’’ is a bit of a misnomer. Manufacturers may label items as single-use only, but if it’s opened but not used on a patient, hospitals may discard it for fear of being sued, according to Hower and REMEDY.

In other cases, hospitals donate items when they remodel or change vendors.

“It doesn’t mean that the stuff that they’re pulling off isn’t safe anymore. They were using it the day before, it’s just that better, newer stuff comes along,’’ Hower said.

For example, Global Links got 3,000 IV poles after a hospital changed to a new pump and had to get new poles to accommodate the pumps, Hower said.

And equipment like stretchers, wheelchairs and beds are being made for Americans who are growing larger, Hower said, meaning hospitals phase out existing equipment.

One of the premises behind Global Links reminds Hower of childhood, when her mother would tell her to finish her meal, because other people were starving.

“And I’m thinking like, ‘How is my eating that going to help people that are starving?’ And it took me a long time to realize, it’s this whole idea of respect ... that you don’t throw something away when you know someone else needs it,’’ She said. “You don’t do that lightly. You don’t waste things lightly because you can.’’

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