In a loading dock in northeast Fresno, two men pull up to the warehouse at Saint Agnes Medical Center in a white moving van. They meet a contract coordinator with the hospital named Heather Ritter, who pulls out a clipboard and asks them to sign a form. “As is, no warranty, no service, you know the drill,” she says. “And no charge, how's that!”
They load the truck with medical odds and ends Saint Agnes no longer has any use for: Surgical masks, metal shelves, and a device the size of a toaster with a multitude of tiny joysticks. “They call it an EasySpray or Fibrinotherm,” Ritter says. One of the men, Jay Witters, laughs. “I’ve never heard of the word ‘fibrino,’ but I guess we’ll figure that out,” he says as he lifts it into the truck.
Saint Agnes is getting rid of these surgical supplies not because they’re expired or broken, but because the hospital has replaced them with newer models. In fact, medical equipment in America is dumped at alarming rates because of upgrades, new hospital contracts and even doctors retiring. And in the case of Saint Agnes, Witters and his colleague Ken Allen are here to take the leftovers.
They’re volunteers with Medical Ministries International, or MMI, a non-profit organization that donates used medical equipment to hospitals and clinics around the world. The need is real: Approximately 40 percent of medical equipment in developing countries is estimated out of service.
Ritter says she’s glad St. Agnes can help underserved communities. “It's been really wonderful for us because we don't want to see this stuff in a landfill,” she says, “and we know it can still be used.”
Every year, MMI collects hundreds of tons of medical supplies and equipment from hospitals and doctors’ offices across the San Joaquin Valley. And all of it eventually makes its way to a 2,500-square-foot office building near downtown Clovis, where about a dozen volunteers stand along banquet tables stacked high with latex gloves, intubation tubes and suture kits. “This is the sorting warehouse,” says Thomas Stoeckel, a board member and MMI co-founder.
Here, Stoeckel and his volunteers test, sort and pack medical supplies into shipping containers they send to clinics in two dozen countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. A much larger warehouse in southwest Fresno houses hospital beds and boxes already packed and waiting to be shipped.
Stoeckel, a retired registered nurse, founded the organization in 1998 with his wife, nurse practitioner Nancy Stoeckel. He says they were drawn to this work after visiting a drastically underserved hospital in Lithuania. “As you walk into the hospital they had strings attached to the walls, and the purpose of those strings was to hang their gloves because they reused their gloves because they didn't have [extra] gloves,” he says. “Over here in the U.S. we have great excess, and then over here we have great need. So we want to just pass this through MMI, get a chance to sort through it, pick out the good things, and then send those things to places overseas.”
In 20 years, Stoeckel estimates MMI has sent roughly 80 shipping containers around the world, each weighing 10 to 15 tons, and each worth as much as half a million dollars. The organization doesn’t accept prescriptions, or used supplies that can’t easily be sterilized like needles or gloves. But, Stoeckel explains, equipment like X-ray machines, hospital beds and IV racks are totally usable—as long as they’re not expired. “It gives us an opportunity to stop that direct flow to a landfill,” he says.
The organization is faith-based, rooted in Christianity. Prayers and psalms are posted on its walls, and “Jesus is Lord” is painted on the exterior of its Fresno warehouse. Stoeckel says the organization serves everyone, regardless of their faith—but MMI does run mission trips abroad, and Stoeckel says they’ve built churches in some of the communities they serve. “What we do is reach out to help others and to just love on them,” he says, “and to have them see hopefully the love of Christ through the whole thing.”
MMI is small, with only three paid employees, but dozens of similar organizations operate all around the world. So many, because healthcare is inherently wasteful—even after accounting for the disposal of soiled and unhygienic supplies. One study estimates U.S. operating rooms waste 2,000 tons of unused supplies like gloves, drill bits and surgery kits every day. For one operating room at UC San Francisco, that works out to an annual loss of $2.9 million.
“There’s laws, and surely the were put in place for a reason, but the end result is there is quite a lot that is recycled or thrown away out of hospitals,” says Andrew MacCalla, Director of International Programs with the non-profit organization Direct Relief. The charity donates millions of dollars’ worth of medical supplies and prescriptions each year internationally.
According to The World Health Organization, as much as 80 percent of healthcare equipment around the world is made possible only because of donations. “There’s a huge need for this equipment,” says MacCalla, “as long as you do it in a responsible way.”
Good intentions go only so far, warns MacCalla. He says he saw winter clothes sent to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and he’s witnessed expired food and broken medical equipment dropped into other disaster areas. “If you’re sending the wrong thing it clogs up the supply channels. It clogs up the airport,” he says. “It’s actually more harmful, and then they’re discouraged from ever wanting to receive anything again.”
Thomas Stoeckel says Medical Ministries International takes great pains to not just helicopter into the communities they work with. He says they test all their equipment before packing it. They familiarize themselves with their partner facilities abroad, and get pre-approval from locals of everything they plan to ship. And he says they send essentials like sterilizing equipment and generators as often as they can. “We're not sending junk overseas,” he says. “We want to make sure that everything we send overseas is usable.”
MMI’s next containers are going to the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They call them shipments of love.