Wave, July / August 2012
It's mid-morning on a Saturday in June, and the warehouse is buzzing with activity. About two dozen volunteers - all members of International HOPE Canada - are loading all manner of medical supplies and equipment into a shipping container bound for South America.
Blankets, sheets, syringes, rubber gloves, cataract surgery kits, stretchers, hospital beds, crash carts and wheel chairs - they're all flying up the ramp and into the container. Much of the material, which is donated by hospitals and clinics throughout Manitoba, is obsolete or no longer suitable for use. The volunteers have even managed to lay their hands on a slightly used anaesthesia machine - a valuable commodity in the re-purposed medical equipment market.
By the time all is said and done on this day, these volunteers will load more than 10 tonnes of medical supplies into this container, which will eventually find its way to Peru and to hundreds of people in need.
It's a remarkable undertaking, one that is not lost on Delayne Weeks, a community development co-ordinator with Alberta-based Angkor Gold Corporation, which is paying to transport the supplies to Peru. "I don't know of anything else like this in Canada," says Weeks, who was one of the volunteers helping out on this day. "This organization is second to none."
Indeed, there is no other organization quite like International HOPE Canada.
The Winnipeg-based charity was started by Phyllis Reader, a retired operating room nurse, following a nursing trip to Ecuador in 1997. During her visit she saw how bent, rusted needles were being used for suturing. Upon her return to Canada, she asked colleagues if they could collect surplus medical supplies to send to hospitals and clinics in the developing world.
As supplies started to come in, she asked to use a locked room at Westminster United Church for storage. When friends Sonia and Merv Michalyshen returned to Winnipeg briefly during a three-year mission to Malawi, Africa, Reader offered to let them take what they needed back to the desperately poor southern African nation.
Parishioners at the Michalyshens' church, Holy Redeemer, were also working to collect and send supplies to the couple after they returned to Malawi. Volunteers from both groups then got together, leading to the formal establishment of International HOPE as a charitable group in 2001.
Board member and past president Roma Maconachie admits the volunteers who formed the nucleus of the group didn't know what they were getting into when they started collecting old medical supplies.
"There was no template for us to follow," she says. "People are always asking us, 'Where else does this occur?' Nowhere."
Things really got moving when a businessman who was an early supporter offered the fledgling organization a 3,500-square-foot warehouse.
Initially, says Reader, the focus of the group was medical supplies of the sort a doctor or nurse might fill a suitcase with prior to an international mission: disposable items like sutures, sponges, and gloves, or small instruments like scalpels and scissors. But the organization's volunteers soon discovered there was more surplus material than that - and a huge appetite for it in the developing world. In 2003, the organization was offered 200 hospital beds that would otherwise have been disposed of as scrap metal.
"We thought, 'Oh, that would be lovely,'" recalls Reader.
Those 200 beds turned out to be the tip of a hospital-furniture iceberg. Across Manitoba, hospitals switched from old-style mechanical beds to modern and ergonomically better electric ones, leaving thousands of old beds surplus.
As word spread, the organization began to get ever more specialized and sophisticated supplies and equipment. On one occasion, when the dental unit at a seniors' complex was closing, International HOPE was offered a full dental suite.
When a dentist friend looked at the equipment being offered, says Reader, "He went and he saw it and said, 'Oh my God, this would be priceless.'"
The suite of dental equipment - including the chair, lights, instrument console and X-ray machine - went to Zambia, where it was used to treat hundreds of children and then left behind for other visiting dentists to provide service for an entire region.
On other occasions, the organization has shipped custom-made but never-used prosthetics to countries such as Cambodia and Uganda, where war and the lingering effects of landmines have led to many people losing limbs.
To make room for the influx of equipment, International HOPE's warehouse space (still paid for by the anonymous donor) grew to the current 40,000 square feet. Once they had room, the organization began getting more and more bulky items, including wheelchairs, examining tables, operating tables and more. "We started to get complete operating rooms," says Reader.
The influx of equipment was, in part, a result of medical services being centralized in regional hospitals across Manitoba, leaving many small, rural hospitals with surplus equipment and instruments. At the same time, notes Maconachie, technological improvements meant that many pieces of equipment that had become obsolete in Canada were still valuable in the developing world.
In many cases new, less-invasive surgical techniques provide better outcomes and faster recovery times for Canadian patients. But the developing world lacks the technology and wealth to move to these new techniques. In the hospitals in the developing world, Canada's obsolete supplies are often better than anything they have.
Reader has seen that reality first-hand. She describes an experience while on a mission in a remote corner of northeastern India called Nagaland when a boy needed to have a painful bone spur removed. After searching fruitlessly for a bone saw, she ended up finding a hacksaw in the hospital's tool shed, sterilizing it in boiling water, and handing it to the doctor.
Much of the surplus material comes into International HOPE's hands because our wealth allows us to err much farther on the side of caution than people in the developing world. Some items at International HOPE's warehouse are past best-before dates. An unopened box of latex gloves, for example, may be considered waste here because it's past an arbitrary expiry date. But in many parts of the world, throwing out an unused box of gloves would be unthinkable. "In Africa, they wash and rewash those gloves until they fall off your hands," says Reader.
Other items collected by International HOPE are considered single-use instruments, even though they can be sterilized and used again. Reader cites the use of cataract surgical kits that contain eye patches, gloves, gauze, and a few different kinds of forceps and scissors. In Canada, once the kit is opened, even the items that haven't been used are treated as garbage, and the scissors and forceps are treated as single-use instruments and thrown out. Since about 2003-04, staff at Misericordia Health Centre have been collecting the unused portions of the kits, sterilizing the "single use" instruments, and sending them to International HOPE.
"We've sent thousands and thousands of those abroad," says Reader.
Staff at the Concordia Hospital, who will take supplies from International HOPE with them when they carry out hip and knee replacements in Nicaragua this fall, have also been collecting surplus goods and recycling "single-use" instruments for International HOPE for several years.
Not everything collected at International HOPE is useable. In one corner of the warehouse is a section of older medical equipment referred to as the archival area. These outdated, and in some cases non-functioning, supplies have been used by filmmakers needing to recreate a hospital or examining room for a movie set in a specific period.
International HOPE's equipment has found its way onto the stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and into films, such as the adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. Producers provide an honorarium to the organization.
Because the supplies being sent abroad are considered waste in Canada, they have virtually no value here. But for the receiving hospitals and clinics, the container is likely to contain supplies worth anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000.
Volunteers with the organization even carry out repairs on some pieces of equipment, such as wheelchairs and stretchers. At a pair of workstations in the warehouse, tools are lined up for repairing materials that just need a bit of TLC to be useful.
Receiving, cataloguing, and repairing donated material - as well as helping with the general administration of the organization - take up about 10,000 hours per year of volunteer labour, says Maconachie. That labour comes from a pool of volunteers, about 75 per cent of whom are former health-care workers and 95 per cent of whom are retired.
One volunteer couple based in Neepawa actually travelled around western Manitoba picking up surplus goods at local hospitals and nursing homes for International HOPE.
A long list of businesses have also provided in-kind services to help the organization with picking up goods from hospitals and other health facilities.
For several years now, volunteers at International HOPE have put together eight, and sometimes more, shipments per year.
In the organization's office, a map of the world bristles with coloured pins denoting countries where International HOPE has sent full shipping containers, pallets and crates, or boxes of supplies.
Countries receiving full containers include Ecuador, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Other shipments have gone to Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Vietnam, South Sudan and many other countries.
International HOPE provides the supplies and equipment, and partners with an organization that pays for the cost of sending the goods abroad.
Often, a community organization with roots in a particular country will take on the fundraising to send a shipment back to their former home. The Mennonite Benevolent Society, for example, raised funds to send eight containers to Ukraine to help stock nursing homes and hospitals.
The container bound for Peru in early June was paid for by a Canadian junior mining company, Angkor Gold Corporation, that is active in that country. Supplies in that shipment were expected to be distributed to a number of needy hospitals and clinics in the area around Chiclayo, Peru.
Not all the supplies go out in big container loads. Health-care workers going abroad to volunteer still come by the warehouse on "shopping" trips to fill up a bag with supplies.
In one upcoming case, International HOPE will be working with the Yemeni Consulate to send a load of medical supplies to that troubled nation on the Arabian Peninsula.
Typically, putting together a load will involve some back and forth between International HOPE and the receiving hospital or health department. The receiving organization will have a shopping wish list and the Winnipeg organization will send a list of what they have available.
For legal reasons, the receiving organization will need to sign a waiver before accepting the recycled supplies. After all the funds have been raised by the partner group and all the customs paperwork has been taken care of, the actual day of loading the shipping container is as much a celebration as it is a day of manual labour.
"The energy of loading up that trailer is amazing," says Reader.
"It's the culmination of a year of work," adds Maconachie.
Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer.
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