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Discarded medical supplies aid others in Central, South America |

Discarded medical supplies aid others in Central, South America

Allison M. Heinrichs
| Sunday, September 13, 2009 12:00 a.m

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.

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