One Hospital's Waste is Another's lifeline
As a resident at UNC Hospitals, Dr. Georgine Lamvu-Schooler spends her days working with the highest-quality medical
equipment and supplies. But she never takes that for granted:
She was born in Romania and lived in various developing nations
until 1987. In Uganda her mother was an intensive care nurse,
dealing firsthand with the frustrations of a medical care system
in a desperate state.
Imagine a hospital where nurses wash and re-use "disposable"
gloves. One that uses fishing line or sewing thread for sutures.
One where patients must provide their own medical supplies
and even medicine before receiving treatment.
Such scenarios are common in many developing countries,
where basic medical supplies are luxuries. Most American hospitals,
however, routinely discard tons of unused supplies. No federal
gUidelines specify which supplies can be recycled, so items generally
are thrown out after being used. The result is that many thousands
of dollars' worth of supplies and equipment, desperately needed
in developing nations, are wasted every year.
Lamvu-Schooler had experienced the best and the worst of
hospitals around the world, and it gave her a vision. She wanted to
find a way of connecting these vastly different worlds: performing
community service on a global level, improving staff morale, and
reducing hospital waste. In July 1999, the process of creating
When Lamvu-Schooler initially approached hospital administra-
tors with her idea, most were skeptical."The first words I heard
were,'No, this can never be done at UNC,'" she said."There was
no enthusiasm on the administrative level." But she persisted.
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She gradually found-or was found by-other medical students
and hospital staff who were willing to help. One nurse had a
tractor-trailer at her house full of reusable supplies she had been
salvaging for years and couldn't bring herself to throwaway.
In November, Lamvu-Schooler and one volunteer finally began
packing boxes. The nonprofit, volunteer-run organization collects
medical supplies the hospital otherwise would discard, makes sure
they meet medical safety standards, and donates them to approved
charities. The charities, in turn, sterilize and distribute the supplies.
It was obvious that two workers could not handle all the items
generated by the hospital, so volunteer recruitment was a major
effort in MEDworld's early stages. The response has been impres-
sive: Since its inception, MEDworid has grown to include 28 medical
students, residents and nurses.
"The waste that we have now is incredible," Lamvu-Schooler
said."We collect less than 5 percent of what we could actually
collect if we had the right manpower." A recent campaign for
volunteers doubled the number of workers.
MEDworid also is limited by the logistics of getting the supplies
to the people Who need them. So far, the program has relied on
the charities with which it works to handle shipping expenses; if
Right, volunteers Donna Jones
(with box) and Graham Cosper
prepare to ship supplies. Top,
dozens of hemostats await reuse.
MEDworld shipped inde-
pendently of other charities,
supplies could be sent out
more frequently."We haven't
gathered enough money to
do our own shipping," said
Lamvu-Schooler, but she
gets "letters all the time
requesting supplies:' Fund
raising may be the next
step toward MEDworld's
growth. Various organizations-the medical alumni association,
the resident association and several corporations-already have
donated to the cause.
The philosophy behind MEDworid is not unique to UNC
Hospitals: More than 100 similar programs, some of which served
as models for Lamvu-Schooler, are scattered across the United
States."This is a whole field, and UNC's just catching up:' she said.
MEDworld doesn't cost UNC Hospitals anything; it actually
saves money by reducing the amount of waste disposed. And as
MEDworid makes an impact elsewhere, it's also affecting UNC's
own hospital staff."People are paying attention - instead of
throwing good supplies away, they'll call us and say,'Come get
this;" Lamvu-Schooler said. "People are so happy to help. They're
saving somebody's foot or leg, keeping a diabetic from going into
a coma. They know they're helping somebody else."
MEDworid has donated about 600 boxes of supplies, including
more than 10,000 steel instruments and equipment such as beds,
operating tables and defibrillators, in its first year.
The bulk of the supplies collected by MEDworld are the bare
essentials: surgical gloves, steel instruments, gauze. But these items
are in high demand in the more than 30 countries that MEDworid
helps. "They don't have basic, basic stuff," said Lamvu-Schooler.
"People are dying without these things.
"All you have to do is visit one of these places once and you
realize how lucky we are in America."