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'HERO' Makes a Difference by Recycling Medical Equipment - 2002-05-14

American medical centers are usually well equipped with the supplies doctors and nurses need. Bandages, stitches, gloves and catheters are close at hand, sterile and packaged in boxes. But sometimes, a whole box isn't needed, and the surplus items, still in their original wrapping, are tossed in the trash.

In many countries around the world, that trash could be a lifesaver. A group of volunteers in Minnesota with the Healthcare Equipment Recycling Organization (HERO) is making sure it gets to where it can make a difference.

Every day, in hospitals across the country, surplus medical supplies from surgical gloves to bandages are tossed away. Nurse Deanna Micheli was appalled by the waste she saw in the operating room at Fargo's Merit Care Hospital, and decided to do something about it.

"Our abundance is ridiculous to put into the waste that's the whole idea of HERO is, we can benefit those in need by just using our over stock or abundance," she said.

Six years ago, with help from like-minded nurses and doctors in town, she organized the HERO Program. Since then, some 20 tons of supplies, unused surgical gloves, paper gowns, rubber tubes have been recycled, not thrown away. Area hospitals, clinics and nursing homes donate their surplus material. Retired Lutheran minister Dale Vitalis, a member of HERO's board of directors, says most of it has gone to medical missions outside the United States. "Without that, the doctors would not be able to do what they are doing," he said. "Global medical missionary work would really be hindered."

Religious affiliated organizations like the World Medical Missions and Global Health Ministries, as well as a variety of secular medical groups, all benefit from HERO's work. Reverend Vitalis says it's an inexpensive way to help people.

"We are such a throw away society and to see the stuff not land in the landfill but rather land where it can be used that's a wonderful part of it all," he said.

HERO is run by volunteers. That means there is no money for things like storage space. So, in the beginning, HERO volunteers stored recycled equipment in their garages. But the program's success forced the group to find a warehouse. And now the operation is moving to an even bigger place - a new facility donated by a local lumberyard.

As they prepare for the move to their new home, volunteers take apart storage racks and stack them on the floor. A truck-load worth of boxes, each stuffed with medical supplies, dominates the space. There are small piles of crutches and walkers along the wall.

Getting all this recycled equipment to its destination is a big challenge for HERO. Founder Deanna Micheli says it's important to know someone who can ensure the goods arrive safely. "If you don't have a connection with the mission group that you're working with, the black market is out there and those health care items could be picked up and sold for the benefit of whoever finds them on the port," she said. "So we've always been able to connect so we don't worry about the items not getting where they are suppose to go."

While international medical missions are the group's primary focus, the HERO volunteers are aware of people in their community who need help as well. Delana Duffy-Aziz supervises a local government program that helps disabled and elderly people stay in their homes, rather than move to a nursing facility. She says, when funding for equipment was eliminated last year, HERO came to the rescue.

"Things like raised toilet seats, grab bars, bath seats, things that help people do their personal cares in their own homes and do it more safely without the risk of falling or reducing the risk of falling," she said.

Deanna Micheli says she still finds it hard to believe that recycled equipment is so important. She tells of an e-mail from a missionary doctor in Mongolia who had received a shipment of supplies. He passed along a thank you for rubber tubes, which allowed him to teach local doctors surgical procedures that will save lives. Miz Micheli says it's little things like that e-mail that keep her and the HERO program going.