Once a week in the basement of Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), Yale junior Sameer Gupta sorts through medical and surgical supplies and packs them for transport overseas.
It's not the most glamorous job, says Gupta, but it gives him an "unparalleled opportunity" to play a role in helping to reduce two pressing global issues: healthcare inequality and environmental waste.
Gupta is a volunteer for Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World (REMEDY), a non-profit organization that was started 17 years ago by Yale anesthesiologist Dr. William Rosenblatt to collect surplus medical supplies and send them to places where they are sorely needed.
Photographs by Michael Marsland
Since its founding, REMEDY has donated to developing countries more than 50 tons of medical supplies from YNHH that otherwise would have been discarded as waste. These materials include unopened sterile gloves, sutures, drapes, surgical gowns, syringes, bandages, catheters and sponges — all recovered from the hospital's operating rooms. Due to legal concerns and U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, the items are considered "unsterile" and therefore cannot be used again in this country. In addition, about 30% of the material donated is brand new.
"Every year, we collect $200,000 to $300,000 worth of medical and surgical materials from YNHH alone," says Rosenblatt, professor of anesthesiology and otolaryngeal surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. "These are clean, perfectly good supplies that are needed desperately by health care personnel in other parts of the world. REMEDY donates them to U.S.-based charitable organizations, which then distribute them where they are needed. This allows hospital staff and student volunteers to participate together in a worthy cause. At the same time, we achieve an environmental benefit by keeping all of this solid waste out of our landfills. It's a solution in which everybody wins."
Rosenblatt founded REMEDY early in his career at Yale after participating in several medical mission trips to Latin and South America, where he observed a stark contrast between the scarcity of supplies in these regions and the abundance of them at home.
"As an anesthesiologist, I'm very observant of what is going on in an operating room," the Yale professor says. "Here, I was seeing lots of unused materials going to waste. In contrast, in Peru I saw things being used over and over again. There, a medical student would store latex gloves in his textbook and use them until they broke, cleaning them between uses with an antiseptic solution.
"Similarly, in places like Honduras and Peru, I saw a lot of material being jerry-rigged for another purpose," Rosenblatt continues. "A broken latex glove, for example, might be cut up and used as a drain for an incision. While at home, a suture thread would be thrown away after a piece of it was used, there the doctors would save the thread, using it on other patients until the last bit was gone."
Rosenblatt learned that some YNHH doctors and nurses were individually collecting unused materials to donate, but there was no system-wide program in place for the collection and distribution of those supplies. In 1990, he asked the entire nursing staff to collect unused materials from operating rooms. REMEDY was established the following year, when Rosenblatt and a small group of volunteers began sorting and sterilizing the surplus items and shipping them to Interplast, an organization of doctors and other health care professionals who, at that time, provided free surgery for children and adults in Latin America.
"Eventually, Interplast told us that it could only use materials specific to plastic surgery, so REMEDY teamed with the New Haven/León, Nicaragua Sister City Project. At one point, we were supplying 40% of the disposable materials for the main hospital in León, which served 180,000 people. It was phenomenal," says Rosenblatt.
REMEDY now has partnerships with a variety of U.S. charitable organizations, which ship and distribute the hospital supplies overseas. In addition, many Yale undergraduate and graduate students take some of the collected materials to countries they visit when they travel overseas.
"A tremendous number of Yale students now travel overseas, and we're able to send many of them with a container of medical supplies that are badly needed in the countries they visit," Rosenblatt says. "At the medical school, for example, one resident in internal medicine travels to Kampala, Uganda, each month as part of the Yale/Johnson & Johnson Physician Scholars in International Health program. Every couple of months, medical students go to Kampala. Each student travels with the gift of a container of supplies specially customized for the hospital there."
To date, approximately 40 containers of medical materials have been transported by students to Uganda. Rosenblatt says that in some of the developing countries, well over half of the supplies REMEDY donates have been used within the first two months of their receipt.
Not long after REMEDY started, Rosenblatt and a colleague, Yale anesthesiology professor David Silverman, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association documenting the organization's impact. The article generated wide interest from staff members at hospitals across the United States who wished to replicate the program at their institutions. In response, Rosenblatt began teaching about and promoting nationwide the recovery and donation of surplus medical supplies.
"We changed our focus from simply being a collection agency to becoming a teaching agency," says the Yale professor, who in 1996 was awarded a $50,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise for his humanitarian work. "We created a free, comprehensive teaching packet that helps other hospitals start a standardized recovery program based on the REMEDY model at YNHH. Today, more than 600 hospitals team with charity organizations to donate supplies."
REMEDY has also benefitted some local non-profit organizations, which repurpose some of the collected materials that are not sent abroad. The Eli Whitney Museum, for example, is grateful to receive plastic operating-room trays that its students and visitors use to hold supplies or use as a sturdy base as they build trains, boats and other creations using small parts.
About 10 years ago, Rosenblatt established the REMEDY program Med-Eq, an online service that connects donors of medical equipment and supplies with registered non-profits and charities.
A group of about a half-dozen student volunteers allows REMEDY to continue its mission at a time when maintaining appropriate financial support for the organization is a challenge, says Rosenblatt, who both organizes and participates in half-marathons, pie-baking events and other sponsor-driven activities to raise money for the organization. (See related story, below.)
"Some of our volunteers are students who are interested in medicine or in working for international NGOs," the Yale physician says. "Their commitment has been tremendous."
Gupta, who is majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and anthropology, says he has been able to take part in several different facets of REMEDY.
"I primarily help sort medical supplies from YNHH weekly, but sorting these supplies has also taken me far from the hospital basement," says the undergraduate. "I have delivered these medical supplies to a Haitian farming community in the Dominican Republic and have also arranged for supplies to be sent to clinics in India and Liberia. After witnessing struggling clinics abroad, I know the life-saving differences that the REMEDY resources can make. It was personally satisfying for me to help arrange for some of the medical supplies to be donated to a community in which my grandfather lives in India."
Gupta says he has also been inspired by Rosenblatt's "resolve and ingenuity" in tackling important problems.
"I am learning about the tremendous and unnecessary global disparities in resources that can be mitigated by thoughtful solutions," he says. "Each glove, catheter, syringe or other basic medical good that I place into a shipment box reminds me of the tremendous need abroad that is only matched by the tremendous waste at home. REMEDY has inspired me to seek simple but eloquent solutions to pressing global issues. It has shown me that we do not always have to tackle problems independently, but sometimes a solution for one issue can help resolve another."
Rosenblatt says his dream is to have all of the approximately 8,000 hospitals in the United States participating in a medical supplies recovery effort to improve the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. He is continually reaching out to them to promote that goal.
"I'm a lifelong believer that if you do something to help someone, eventually it comes back to you," he says.
— By Susan Gonzalez
Support needed to continue mission
Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World (REMEDY) struggles to continue its mission of providing surplus medical supplies to developing countries at a time when many charitable organizations are challenged by the failing economy.
Dr. William Rosenblatt, the founder of REMEDY and a Yale anesthesiologist, says that without new financial support, the organization will be unable to promote and assist medical supply recovery programs at other hospitals. REMEDY will continue its collection of supplies at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
"We'd like to continue to have an influence nationwide, but our ability to do that depends on the financial support of donors," Rosenblatt says. "That component of our program is very much in danger."
Donations to REMEDY can be at made at the organization's website at www.remedyinc.org.