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December 5, 2017 > Diverting unused medical supplies from landfills saves lives globally

Diverting unused medical supplies from landfills saves lives globally

By Johnna M. Laird

Eight major disasters in eight weeks rocked headlines around the world in late summer and fall with Mexicos earthquake, three Atlantic Ocean hurricanes and a siege of California fires. At the Western Regional Distribution Center of MedShare in San Leandro, volunteers responded rapidly to fill requests for medical supplies and equipment.

As disasters slipped from front-page headlines, a flood of requests kept MedShare volunteers busy through the fall. In early November, MedShare prepared another 4,000 pounds of medical supplies on 11 pallets to ship to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, a shipment that included 100 generators since the island was still without lights two months after Hurricane Maria hit, the worst hurricane to strike Puerto Rico in 85 years.

A nonprofit, humanitarian aid organization, MedShare opened its Western Regional Distribution Center in San Leandro in 2008, 10 years after it first launched on the East Coast in Georgia, where its headquartered. MedShare is the brainchild of A.B. Short and Don Freeman, who recognized that vast amounts of medical supplies ending up in landfills could be diverted to address unmet health needs of underserved populations around the world. On May 10, 2018, MedShare will mark its 20th anniversary.

Annually, one million pounds of medical supplies are shipped from MedShares Western Regional Distribution Center, thanks to donors that MedShare considers community partners and to 7,000 volunteers who package everything from surgical gloves, gowns, and gauze to wheelchairs, birthing kits and anesthesia machines. New, unused items donated from manufacturers, corporations, and health providers like Kaiser Permanente, University of California at San Francisco, and Sutter Health are stored in a 50,000 square-foot-plus warehouse in San Leandro. Items, such as crutches, are also donated by the general public.

Disaster relief serves as only one aspect of MedShareÕs operations. It also supports: primary care to aid disease prevention; infectious disease response, like equipping 20 medical mission teams with $3.5 million in medical supplies during the peak of the Ebola crisis; biomedical training to insure that shipped equipment doesnt sit idle; and maternal and child health, aimed at reducing 800 daily maternal pregnancy-related deaths and another six million deaths annually of children under age five.

MedShare routinely ships medical and personal care items to Africa, Central and South America, and the Philippines, says Western Regional Director Eric Talbert. Supplies are sent to community partner organizations. Local people live there. They know what they need, says Talbert. But MedShare also addresses needs within the United States as happened with the San Leandro center recently, facilitating vaccinations for a Syrian immigrant child who needed shots to enroll in school.

Since it began, MedShare has collected more than $207 million in life-saving medical supplies and equipment. By putting supplies and equipment into hands of people who need it, MedShare has kept about 3.6 million cubic feet of reusable medical products from U.S. landfills. More than 100 countries and territories have received supplies to treat 19 million patients. MedShare relies on its 22,000 volunteers nationwide to aid its work.

Marsha Felton, one of those volunteers, has amassed 3,800 hours in San Leandro over the last eight years, showing up for three-hour shifts, two to four times a week. Her volunteering began after HaitiÕs January 2010 earthquake. ÒPhilanthropist Ken Behring gratefully flew a cargo plane of supplies to Haiti from our western headquarters. The need was imminent. MedShare already had a relationship with 15 hospitals there, but ports were closed. Plane runways, however, were open,Ó recalls Felton.

Felton says volunteering gives her purpose. MedShareÕs cause of saving lives and increasing EarthÕs livability gives her satisfaction, plus she has made good friends among caring volunteers and staff. ÒWe are, and continue to improve on being, a well-oiled machine,Ó explains Felton, who sorts and boxes medical supplies donated by hospitals, medical companies, and the general public.

Once volunteers fill orders, the nonprofit needs donors to transport supplies, either by plane or yacht. Otherwise, MedShare must raise funds to pay to ship 40-foot containers, which is costly.

Felton says MedShareÕs uniqueness lies in its selection process, allowing hospitals and care providers to choose supplies they need online, rather than having unused supplies arrive and sit unused in foreign countries. Doctors and nurses on medical missions also self-choose supplies.

Early on, MedShare founders Short and Freeman met with Dr. Bill Foege, an epidemiologist credited with developing the global strategy that led to smallpoxÕs eradication. Over lunch, Foege urged the two men to ship only medical items requested by recipients rather than send supplies MedShare had on hand. Today, MedShare operates an online inventory to make selection an easy process.

Pat Kite of Newark, a garden columnist for Tri-City Voice, volunteers with MedShare once or twice a month for three-hour shifts. After retiring from a physical therapy position at Agnews Developmental Center, she wanted an active, volunteer job where she was on the move helping people but with a flexible, volunteer schedule.

ÒI just love MedShare,Ó explains Kite, now in her sixth year as a volunteer. She moves around the warehouse, sorting and packing donated items from catheters to intravenous tubing and laboratory equipment. ÒVolunteers are friendly. Desperately needed new medical items are saved from a landfill, and it is good exercise.Ó

Monthly, a representative from a recipient organization gives a talk for volunteers at the San Leandro warehouse, helping put global needs in sharper focus.

ÒIn some far-off corner of the world, where desperation and poverty are the norm,Ó says Kite, Òa mother does not die, a baby lives, a leg stays on, and someone can go home. I may not know these people, but in my own small way, I have helped.Ó

To learn more about MedShare, visit or call (510) 567-7070.

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