Tons of medical materials that normally would end up in U.S. landfills are being rescued, repackaged and sent to other countries. An aid group is working with local hospitals and volunteers to get surplus medical supplies to Latin America and the Caribbean. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray takes us on the trip from salvage to salvation:
Tons of medical materials that normally would end up in U.S.
landfills are being rescued, repackaged and sent to other countries.
An aid group is working with local hospitals and volunteers to get
surplus medical supplies to Latin America and the Caribbean. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray takes us on the trip from
salvage to salvation.
(Sound of warehouse activities)
In a warehouse near Pittsburgh, Global Links staffers are preparing to load a shipment of medical aid into a forty-foot container bound for Cuba. Workers haul pallets of dialysis kits, mattresses, waiting room chairs and gurneys to the loading dock. Everything here has been carefully sorted, evaluated, and matched with requests from the Cuban Ministry of Health.
Kathleen Hower founded Global Links with two friends back in 1989. It used to operate out of their houses. Since then, Global Links has sent $110 million worth of medical aid, all of it requested by the receiving countries. About two-thirds of that has gone to Cuba.
“Cuba’s unique in so many ways; they’re very advanced medically, they do transplant surgery, they have a lot of doctors. There’s no shortage of physicians there. They’re very different than other countries.”
What Cuba shares with other developing countries is critical shortages of equipment and supplies.
(Sound of busy street)
Here in Havana, the streets are filled with Eisenhower-era cars and lined with shops that repair everything from pots to paperbacks. After more than forty years of a U.S. economic embargo and more than a decade after the loss of their Soviet trading partners, Cubans are masters of improvisation.
The same is true for the island’s medical community, says Sebastion Pererra, the former director of Cuba’s Center for Electromedicine.
PERERRA/TRANSLATOR: “The embargo has been like a school for us. It taught us how to keep working with the same machines and not have the identical parts to replace them.”
Pererra says parts and technical information from Global Links have helped keep old medical equipment going. They’ve also supported new programs in breast cancer screening and dialysis research.
MURRAY: “Has the equipment that Global Links sent to you saved lives?”
PERERRA/TRANSLATOR: “It is undeniable.”
Global Links sends materials to Cuba that other countries can’t use. That’s because medical care is not as advanced in many other developing countries.
Doctor Armando Pancorbo uses the salvaged equipment for minimally invasive surgery at the aging hospital where he works. He and his team have done nearly four thousand operations, using equipment and supplies that were thrown out by U.S. hospitals.
This morning, the O.R. is busy. Anesthesiologists prepare a middle-aged patient for gallbladder surgery while nurses set up sterilized instruments.
Back in Global Links’ Pittsburgh office, volunteers help with the labor-intensive job of packing supplies for shipping. Kristin Carreira says this work is helpful on two fronts.
“Our mission here is both humanitarian and environmental. Environmental because all of our medical supplies that we’re working on would have been put in an incinerator or landfill and so we’re really recycling in that sense.”
The American Hospital Association estimates that U.S. hospitals produce about three million tons of waste every year and they pay about three billion dollars to dispose of it. Many of the supplies that end up in the trash are opened but unused. Worries about liability, changes in technology, and a rash of government regulations account for much of the still-useful materials being thrown out.
Vicky Carse is a nurse who traveled to Cuba as a volunteer.
“Seeing people re-washing gloves where we just would open gloves and throw them away, drapes that we just open up and throw away. To see these people harbor these items, re-wash them and re-wash them because they don’t have supplies, just makes you value what you have.”
The medical community is beginning to take notice. More and more US hospitals are contacting aid organizations. Laura Brannen directs a joint environmental program for the American Hospital Association and the U.S. EPA. She says Global Links and similar groups offer hospitals much needed guidance.
“They provide the infrastructure around what can be used around the world. And without those guidelines, hospitals would be tossing this kind of materials because they don’t know where else to send it.”
Global Links founder Kathleen Hower is happy to set up the guide posts. She says we have to realize that we are all members of a much broader community – one that could use our help, even when it’s a matter of just sharing stuff we’d normally throw away.
For the GLRC, this is Ann Murray reporting.