ShareThis Page
Health

Discarded medical supplies aid others in Central, South America

| Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

It started out as an idea among three Pittsburgh women chatting at a kitchen table.

Every year, hospitals were replacing tons of supplies dumped into landfills. So why not improve health and the environment by donating those old supplies to developing countries•

Global Links was born.

This fall, the nonprofit organization celebrates its 20th anniversary and looks forward to its most successful year yet. It is on track to keep 250 tons of medical supplies out of landfills and put them in the hands of doctors at hospitals and clinics in nine countries in Central and South America.

Donations come from more than 50 hospitals and senior-care facilities in Western Pennsylvania, as well as from several outside the region, such as The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

"It's a simple concept," said Kathleen Hower, Global Links' executive director and cofounder, who has worked in clerical and clinical positions at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "Not only are you keeping these supplies out of landfills, but you're sending them to people who desperately need them and are dying from a lack of them. But it's very complex to carry out."

Hower and fellow Global Links cofounders Emily Solomon and Brenda Smith stored the first donations from what was then Presbyterian Hospital in their homes.

"I remember my dining room table covered in this equipment," said Hower, of the North Side's Mexican War Streets. "My kids were our first volunteers, helping to sort it all."

Global Links now counts about 1,000 volunteers and 17 full- and part-time staff. Its annual operating budget of about $1.2 million comes from several sources, including foundations, national and international grants and individuals.

"Our volunteers work six days a week, doing all of the sorting, counting, packing," said Angela Garcia, deputy director. "If we didn't have volunteers, we wouldn't be able to do this."

The organization has two warehouses in Homewood to store equipment awaiting shipment and offices in Garfield where supplies such as bandages and sutures are sorted by volunteers.

Hower credits the "hospital greening" — in which hospitals strive to lower their environmental footprint — for increasing awareness of Global Links.

"If there's any possible reuse for medical supplies, rather than have them enter the waste stream, we'd like to do that," said David Hargraves, UPMC's director of strategic sourcing, logistics and distribution. "And what Global Links does better than anyone else is they match the needs of the developing nations to the donors."

Specialists travel to developing countries before any shipment goes out to assess the need, meet with medical authorities to get their wish lists and figure out how to transport supplies to remote towns. They make sure the towns have doctors and nurses who can use the supplies and adequate electricity so the equipment will work.

"Global Links is uncompromising of quality and final outcomes," said Dr. Mariela Licha Salomon, who coordinates projects for the Pan American Health Organization, an international public health agency that works with Global Links. "They are so committed to not allowing all their effort to turn into a dumping of materials or equipment that is borderline."

Donations come from hospitals that are upgrading equipment, people with crutches and wheelchairs they're no longer using, hotels with lightly used sheets, offices that are changing waiting room furniture and operating rooms that have sutures or bandages in opened outer packages but remain in sterile inner packaging.

The volunteers refurbish furniture, repair beds or wheelchairs with slight defects, clean and paint IV poles, fold sheets and sort supplies so that everything appears and functions as if new.

"We have to make sure the equipment is complete, functional and of good quality," said Patti Skillin, Global Links program officer for Central and South America.

The organization primarily collects from hospitals in Western Pennsylvania because of travel costs and the environmental impact of trucking the supplies in diesel trucks, but it is looking into the possibility of expanding into other U.S. cities.

"It's not growth for the sake of growth, but how can we grow to maximize our effect on the health outcomes of the developing countries and maximize our effect on the environmental footprint in our country?" said Mimi Falbo of Squirrel Hill, a Global Links board member and executive consultant who used to run Braddock Hospital.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me