Volunteers Karen Mooney, left, and Barbara MacLeod sort medical supplies at Partners for World Health in Portland this month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When patients check out of a hospital, any medical supplies left in their room – an unused IV bag, an unopened toothbrush, leftover gauze, a half-used bag of adult diapers – are thrown away.

“That’s all been paid for by insurance companies, so if you don’t take it home with you it all goes to the trash,” says Elizabeth McLellan, founder of the Portland-based nonprofit Partners for World Health. The same goes for outdated or broken equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and operating room tables.

Partners for World Health collects these items, makes any necessary repairs, and donates them to patients or hospitals that need them, either here in the United States or overseas.

Partners for World Health has played an important role during the pandemic, loaning ventilators, beds, IV poles and other medical equipment to New England hospitals that were gearing up for COVID-19 patients. They also supplied medical providers in New England and New York with tens of thousands of unused masks and gloves.

But the organization is receiving a Source award for the byproduct of its work – reducing the amount of medical-related trash that ends up in landfills. Since 2009, Partners for World Health has collected more than 2.5 million pounds of discarded medical equipment and supplies, sending much of it to developing countries where it is desperately needed.

Partners for World Health President and founder Elizabeth McLellan stands on boxes of medical supplies in the organization’s Walch Street warehouse in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The idea for the nonprofit came to McLellan, whose background is in nursing and healthcare administration, when she was working at a hospital in Saudi Arabia and traveled to a village in northern Pakistan. While waiting for a doctor to show her around, she saw patients packed closely together with no heat, no IV poles, no sheets to cover the dead.

“The physician came out of the operating room in his bloody cotton gown,” she recalled, “and we went from patient to patient and he explained to me the different diagnoses. He took the dressing down and showed me the wound, and we talked about different treatments, and then he put the same wound care back on the patient with the same tape, wiped his hands on his gown and moved on to the next patient.”

Nurses were walking around with outdated needles and glass syringes that were “so archaic,” McLellan said. “I said to myself, ‘My god, this is incredible because we’re throwing everything away at home and they need it.’ ” She vowed that one day she would do something about it.

Today, the organization partners with more than 200 medical facilities in northern New England, 85 percent of them in Maine. Those facilities have discovered that donating their unneeded supplies to PWH can also save them lots of money in disposal fees. A savings of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year at a hospital, McLellan says, can pay for three registered nurses.

Volunteer Bill Babbitt repairs a donated wheelchair at Partners for World Health in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Volunteers process and pack up the supplies when they come into the Partners for World Health warehouses in Portland, Bangor, Presque Isle, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Burlington, Vermont, and Worcester, Massachusetts. They also fill huge shipping containers with supplies headed to places like Honduras, Mongolia, Syria, Kenya, Uganda, Armenia and Congo. (PWH conducts several medical missions a year to many of these same countries as well.)

In late spring, a container filled with wheelchairs and artificial limbs will be shipped to a leprosy hospital in Liberia. Another jam-packed container – “We don’t ship any air,” McLellan is fond of saying – will be sent to southern Sudan in June. “They are in dire straits,” McLellan said. “Some of the worst conditions I have ever seen.”

Two shipping containers leave Maine almost every month, each stuffed with 20,000 pounds of medical equipment and supplies.

All saved from the trash.


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