Some great ideas wither on the vine of good intentions. Others get bigger and bigger and bigger, until …

“We need more space!” said Elizabeth McLellan, founder of Partners for World Health, as she stood Monday inside a Scarborough warehouse jam-packed with hospital beds, operating-room lights, neonatal incubators and countless other medical supplies awaiting shipment to faraway places. Places where people are literally dying for this stuff.

“We’re making big commitments to those people,” McLellan continued. “We’re big now. So we’ve got to act big.”

We first met McLellan in this column five years ago. A nurse administrator at Maine Medical Center, she had grown tired of all the medical “waste” – most of it still in unopened, sterile packaging – that went from hospitals straight to the dump simply because it had been brought into patients’ rooms and was thus officially classified as “used.” Even though it wasn’t.

Back then, McLellan had filled her Portland apartment with the stuff.

A longtime traveler to Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia, she’d personally deliver oversized bags filled with the supplies to hospitals and clinics wherever she went. Or, if she heard of someone else embarking on a trip to a needy corner of the globe, she’d implore them to add a duffel or two to their baggage.

As word spread of her one-woman crusade, the piles kept growing. So much so that in 2009, McLellan moved her fledgling Partners for World Health out of her home and into donated space on Marginal Way in Portland.

A year later, when the business that owned that building needed to reoccupy it, an anonymous benefactor read about McLellan’s plight and set her up, complete with three years’ rent, at a storage facility in Scarborough.

That lease expired late last year. Thanks again to the same donor, Partners for World Health moved in January to its current, 11,000-square-foot headquarters on Broadway in South Portland.

At the same time, the nonprofit has expanded into three more donated spaces – two in Portland and yet another warehouse in Scarborough.

But one Portland location, used primarily to store discarded biomedical equipment that still works fine, was lost to flooding in August. The second, filled mostly with wheelchairs, crutches and commodes, is only available through the end of October.

And the Scarborough warehouse – owned by Maine Medical Center and used both for big-item storage and as Partners for World Health’s shipping facility – could be snatched away with just two months’ notice.

That’s the bad news. Now let’s look at what McLellan and her ever-expanding legion of volunteers have accomplished.

Each year, at least 10 shipping containers – each containing up to 50,000 pounds of medical equipment and supplies – leave the Partners for World Health loading dock bound for places like Uganda, Rwanda, Senegal, Bangladesh, Libya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Dominican Republic and, most recently, the war-torn border between Turkey and Syria. That’s 250 tons of goodwill every 12 months.

One such container, including hospital beds, will soon depart for a hospital that McLellan visited just this month in Kampala, Uganda.

“It’s a 1,500-bed facility and there are 2,000 patients,” she recalled.

So where do they put the 500 extra patients?

McLellan pointed downward. “On the floor,” she said.

Each year, McLellan leads a pilgrimage of a dozen or more doctors, nurses and students on medical missions to many of those same places. Next year, the teams will travel to Bangladesh, Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda and Turkey.

Noted McLellan, “Three doctors can do 60 to 75 surgeries in 10 days.”

Each year, more than 800 volunteers stream through Partners for World Health’s front door to sort, bag and box supplies that now come from 40 hospitals in Maine, three in New Hampshire and four in Massachusetts. The small Nantucket Cottage Hospital 30 miles south of Cape Cod sends – at its own expense – at least 500 pounds per month.

“This is an OB kit,” said McLellan, holding up a ready-to-ship plastic bag filled with everything from sterile suture thread for an episiotomy to a plastic clamp for the umbilical cord. “Whatever you could possibly need to deliver a baby safely. Right here.”

Money to cover the shipping costs and processing fees comes primarily from fundraising and grants. The Yarmouth Rotary Club, for example, currently is helping secure a Rotary International grant to help ship supplies to a new cancer clinic in Uganda.

“It costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to ship a container carrying $225,000 worth of medical supplies to Africa,” McLellan said. “So it’s a good deal.”

With the ebola epidemic in western Africa growing worse by the day – and, in the process, draining scarce medical supplies throughout the region – it’s also Maine’s moral obligation to keep Partners for World Health moving forward.

Now for the truly outstanding part.

Since she began turning trash into treasure five years ago, even since she retired from Maine Medical Center last September, McLellan has paid herself not a dime. The same goes for those who have worked tirelessly alongside her.

“She’s the most unbelievable woman on the face of the Earth,” said volunteer Angela Leblanc of Rangeley, who stopped by Monday with a box of unused tube-feeding devices that her daughter had sent up from New York City.

“But Elizabeth needs all the help she can get,” said Leblanc. “We need the people with the big money.”

Which brings us back to Partners for World Health’s growing pains.

McLellan has already located a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Portland that would put all of her satellite operations under one roof. She’s also certain that somewhere out there waits someone with the means to help her lease such a building – or, better yet, buy it outright.

All she needs is for that someone to call her at 774-5555 or email her at [email protected] Or, if you’d like to learn more, visit her website at

Looking out at the tons upon tons of good things waiting to happen, McLellan didn’t flinch. Supplies come and supplies go, but the need is unrelenting.

“This is my passion,” she said.

And much to McLellan’s credit, it still needs room to grow.