The bags keep coming, all filled with what hospitals and other health-care facilities inexplicably call “trash.”

The volunteers keep coming, too, spending upwards of 400 hours each month sorting, storing and ultimately turning the stuff into Third World treasure.

And the doctors, nurses and other do-gooders keep coming, packing the never-opened needles and syringes, catheters, bags of intravenous fluid and heaven knows what else into their oversized duffle bags for transport to faraway places where a clean roll of gauze is nothing short of a miracle.

So why is Elizabeth McLellan, founder of Portland-based Partners for World Health, feeling more desperate by the day?

“September 10th,” McLellan said this week, surrounded by her medical motherlode at the nonprofit’s headquarters on Marginal Way. “That’s when we have to be out.”

When we last met McLellan in this column, just over a year ago, the Maine Medical Center nurse administrator was up to her neck in a similar problem.

Her home in Portland’s West End had all but disappeared beneath the mountains of perfectly good, still-in-the-package medical supplies — all discarded because they’d crossed the threshold into a patient’s room and thus, under the rules of our world-class health-care system, could not be returned to the hospital supply chain.

McLellan, a longtime globetrotter who’s seen more than her share of misery in places like Africa, southeast Asia and Central America, had begun stockpiling the material by the ton and handing it out to anyone who was willing to take it to places where it could be put to good use.

But she needed her house back. And last fall, AAA of Northern New England invited her to use half of its vacant building at 425 Marginal Way as a distribution center for a mere $100 in monthly rent.

Now, alas, AAA needs to expand back into the building. And McLellan, whose operation has blossomed six-fold since she moved it out of her home in October, is getting a not-so-pleasant introduction to Portland’s anything-but-cheap commercial real estate market.

“We need a distribution center of 5,000-plus square feet,” she said gamely. “And I’m a firm believer in what goes around, comes around.”

Let’s hope so.

Number crunchers might look at McLellan’s dilemma and quickly conclude she’s out of her league in a market where 5,000 square feet of quality warehouse space now rents for upwards of $2,500 a month, plus utilities and other expenses.

But even as her moving deadline looms, McLellan said, Partners for World Health has come too far to even consider giving up now.

“I’m so passionate about this because I just can’t believe what we’re doing,” she said, walking past shelf after shelf of tracheotomy tubes, blood-pressure cups, sterile gloves, knee immobilizers

“Everything in here was going to a landfill. Everything!”

Instead, since October, Partners for World Health has dispatched 75,000 pounds of medical goods to 50 hospitals, orphanages and health clinics in 15 countries all over the world.

One jam-packed 40-foot container recently went to a hospital in Haiti that’s supported by the Portland nonprofit group Konbit Sante; another, filled with 125 hospital beds and mattresses, canes, crutches and other large items, went to a hospital in Tanzania.

Partners for World Health’s footprint has also expanded here in Maine.

Where once virtually all of McLellan’s inventory came from the waste stream at Maine Medical Center, the supplies now flow in from 15 hospitals and 18 other health-care institutions scattered all over the state. The more they send to McLellan, after all, the less they pay for costly trash disposal.

Where once the entire operation overflowed from McLellan’s basement, it now includes the Marginal Way site, a donated basement space on Preble Street that’s filled with beds and other large items, and a storage depot in Rockland for deliveries from central and northern Maine.

Where once the supplies were transported around the world almost entirely by health professionals, more and more non-medical travelers are getting into the act.

Recently, a young woman from Portland contacted McLellan and said she and her parents were embarking on a volunteer mission to an orphanage in Cambodia.

“They wanted to help,” McLellan said, “but they had no idea what to take.”

Not a problem. After a few minutes on the Internet, McLellan had all she needed to know about the orphanage, and a health clinic a block away.

“So we loaded them up and told them, ‘When you get there, here’s where they’re going to want you to take the stuff,’ ” she said. “It was that easy.”

Partners for World Health even has an educational component: On the first Tuesday of each month, nurses and doctors just back from goodwill trips to Uganda or Ethiopia or, just this week, Haiti, present lectures on what they saw and what is still needed.

“We had 25 people here Tuesday evening,” McLellan said. “And half of them were first-time visitors.”

Bottom line, it’s working. And McLellan, for one, thinks Partners for World Health does too much good and makes too much sense to vanish for want of a warehouse. If anything, she said, this kind of thing should be taking root all over the country.

Here’s an idea: Rather than send our tax dollars to Third World countries so they can buy medical supplies on the open market, McLellan said, why not redirect a small fraction of that aid to an organization like hers?

“The medical supplies that those countries are buying are right here in this room,” McLellan said. “If you diverted some of that money to Partners for World Health, we would be shipping container after container out of here.”

Speaking of money, McLellan has applied for a grant from the Draper Richards Foundation, which assists nonprofit startups with annual grants of $100,000 for as long as three years.

But in the meantime, she’s paying for most of her operation out of her own pocket. And she’s hoping that someone out there has space in a warehouse for her operation — along with space in his or her heart to give McLellan a good deal.

Know such a person? Give McLellan a call, the sooner the better, at 671-4723. Or shoot her an e-mail via

“I just know this is the way to go — from so many different perspectives,” McLellan said. “This is the right thing to do — and we need to keep doing it.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]


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