We are so accustomed to throwing things out in the U.S. that discarding medical supplies, used or unused, may not seem irrational.
But in areas where those supplies can mean the difference between life and death, our constant disposal may seem downright insane.
That's where a nonprofit group such as Through These Hands, of Catasauqua, brings sanity back into the picture.
Begun in 2000, the organization collects new and used medical and nonmedical supplies. It then donates them to groups assisting those in crisis in the U.S., such as the victims of Hurricane Katrina, or to health facilities in developing countries, where even something as ordinary as a stretcher or a hospital bed may be considered a luxury.
This week three representatives of West African Education and Medical Mission Inc., of Toledo, Ohio, brought a U-Haul truck and another vehicle to the nonprofit's warehouse in Slatington to load up supplies to ship to Sierra Leone, in northwestern Africa, where an epidemic of the ebola virus has broken out since April.
"It's very, very contagious," said Dr. Karen Asher who, with her husband, Dr. Tom Asher, came to pick up mostly protective gear. They are both with the medical mission and also are medical and technical advisers of the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone.
Asher said the country's population is roughly the same as that of Missouri, 6 million, but there are only 100 to 150 doctors available at any given time, including at the 12 faith-based hospitals and 40 clinics they oversee. Missouri has 18,000. Most treatment facilities are operated by nurses, aides, community health officers and others who can be hesitant to use medical supplies for fear no more will arrive.
"Every single one of those people is risking their lives when they go to work every day, and their families," she said, "so the best thing for them is to be sure they have plenty of protective gear, and to assure them there's plenty more to come."
Their hospitals and clinics were running low, said Through These Hands President Dorene Shannon, who runs the organization with her husband, Bruce, and scores of volunteers. The Ashers, with whom the Shannons have worked since 2008, came for gowns, gloves, face masks and "anything that will prevent the spreading of the disease, from hand use anyway," Shannon said. She also said they would try to take additional medical products, like hospital beds, if room allows. Three 40-foot shipping containers from Through These Hands and other charitable organizations, on their way overseas and another will follow in about a month.
As an example of how donations specifically from Through These Hands have made a difference in the lives of others, Asher said that in Africa in 2009, she and her husband were faced with several young children who died from flesh-eating bacteria.
"We have a limited number of meds available over there," she said.
Just as they were trying to treat nine more children, they received boxes from Through These Hands with samples of a drug they desperately needed. With the medicine, they were able to save seven of the nine youngsters.
Shannon said, "This is the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life, to be able to help somebody we've never met."
The organization began about 15 years ago when Shannon was trying to help out a friend headed to the mission field in Kosovo. She and co-workers in the hospital where she worked gathered up 500 pairs of slippers left behind by the patients and washed and bleached them as "a nice gesture."
"It grew and mushroomed and exploded," Shannon said. The organization now has so many donations from hospitals, nursing homes and private individuals that they no longer fit in its 2,800-square-foot warehouse in Slatington.
"If it's something that we can use, we will accept it," said Shannon, "from a two-by-two piece of gauze up to, and including, X-ray machines."
The mission accepts donations of medical and nonmedical supplies but also eyeglasses and monetary contributions. The only thing it cannot accept are ingestible or injectable medicines that are out-of-date. For more information, visit waemm.com.
To learn more about Through These Hands, visit throughthesehands.org. To make donations, call Dorene or Bruce Shannon at 610-428-2786 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.