Nurses volunteer to transform trash into treasure

MedShare collects discarded medical supplies, distributes them to developing nations

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Garry Johnson, RN, MSN, DHS, has a requirement for the nursing students who travel with him twice a year to Luang Prabang, Laos.

They each must bring 100 pounds of medical supplies. With 20 students slated to visit Laos in November, that's 2,000 pounds of gauze, tubing, sutures and other items that in developing nations, can save lives.

"Gloves, for instance, are so precious they actually don't put them on when starting an IV," said Johnson, an assistant professor at Samuel Merritt University who helps collect, sort and deliver surplus medical supplies through MedShare, a nonprofit organization. "There's not a nurse here who would risk that exposure, but over there they have no choice. [Gloves] are too expensive."

Founded by Atlanta-area nonprofit entrepreneur A.B. Short and retired businessman Bob Freeman in 1998, MedShare has sent $93 million in supplies to 88 countries, outfitted 2,100 medical teams and saved 2 million cubic feet of space in U.S. landfills, according to Chuck Haupt, executive director of MedShare's Western Region in San Leandro, Calif.

Depending on RNs

Based in Decatur, Ga., with a second distribution center in San Leandro, MedShare partners with more than 60 hospitals in Georgia and California to collect surplus items that might otherwise be discarded. The organization depends on nurses and other healthcare volunteers to help identify and sort through thousands of supplies and code them. This streamlined system allows hospitals in Third World countries to order the items as needed through a website, rather than rummaging through packages of mismatched items shipped in bulk.

"It's just like ordering off," Haupt said. "This gives dignity and process to the concept of aid because the recipients are ordering exactly what they need to treat patients."

MedShare sets up recycling barrels at various locations, such as EDs, labor and delivery units, and surgical theaters. MedShare staff picks up the supplies, and 15,000 community volunteers in Georgia and California are then mobilized at their prospective distribution centers to sort and process the items, Haupt said.

Although MedShare sometimes receives larger equipment, such as hospital beds, the supplies most requested are gloves, suture materials, masks, gauze, and basic wound care and triage items.

Waste not, want not

"I've seen surgeries done barehanded," he said. "We have stories that come from our medical teams about wounds being closed with kite strings, fishing lines and reeds instead of suture."

Johnson regularly brings his students to the MedShare distribution center in San Leandro to familiarize them with medical equipment and offer a valuable lesson.

"They get a real sense of global health, and they also get a sense of their place in the world in regards to how much we here in North America have and how much we discard," Johnson said. "Things that we throw away other countries are crying for. Many of these students go on to become MedShare volunteers."

Arleen Sakamoto, RN, MSN, CNOR, CNS, began volunteering for MedShare in January through her local Association of periOperative Registered Nurses chapter. A staff nurse for the San Francisco VA Medical Center, Sakamoto said that when a surgery is scheduled, a basic surgical pack is retrieved containing routinely used items such as drapes, disposable basins, lap sponges and towels. But if the surgery is canceled, the pack cannot be reused, even though the surgery was never performed. Those items are placed in a recycling bin.

"Everything in our society is pretty much disposable," Sakamoto said. "In the old days, we used surgical gowns that were actually sent to the laundry."

Sakamoto, who last year visited Huehuetenango, Guatemala, for five days as part of a medical mission, said she has heard stories about hospitals in developing nations washing and reusing gloves instead of throwing them out.

"I can't tell you how many gloves I go through in one night of working," Sakamoto said. "We hardly ever touch a patient without having gloves on."

In addition to delivering supplies to the hospital in Luang Prabang, Laos, Johnson said his group takes items to a village whose chief also is nurse. Student fundraising efforts also have helped the group purchase beds for the hospital and a digital X-ray developer. The fundraising also has sponsored three young men from Laos to attend college - one of whom chose nursing school. The group's next goal is to ship a 40-foot container of MedShare supplies to Laos.

"We do waste a lot here [in the U.S.]," Johnson said. "But I think there's a level of consciousness that's growing as far as how to recycle these supplies and get them to where they're needed."

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