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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 07:04 am

Gifts of life from Springfield to the world

Used medical equipment, which would have been thrown away, helps sick people in poor countries

A young boy in Kagondo, Tanzania. The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis have run a mission there since 1999. Courtesy of Mission Outreach.

So seemingly humdrum are the operations of Mission Outreach that one of the most difficult tasks for chief executive officer Bruce Compton is creating promotional materials. “Beyond taking a picture of some guy’s back while he’s loading a truck,” little can really capture the significance of the work going on at the facility, he says.

On the surface, Compton is right — there’s nothing awe-inspiring about the place. The organization occupies a nondescript 23,000-square-foot building on the Hospital Sisters Health System campus, just north of Springfield. Inside, office personnel answer the phones and tap away on computer keyboards like at any other workplace, while warehouse workers open bay doors and drive around on forklifts.

But step inside and you’ll see that something awesome is happening out on LaVerna Road. Started by Compton in 2002 with help from the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, Mission Outreach recovers and donates surplus medical supplies to healthcare organizations in developing nations and a few places in the U.S. as well.

Millions of tons of usable medical supplies are discarded annually when manufacturers introduce new product lines or when healthcare facilities make upgrades or go out of business. Not only does the equipment take up space in landfills, the trashed electronic components contain lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, asbestos, nickel and copper that, if incinerated, can contaminate the soil or air.

Meanwhile, doctors in developing countries throughout the world desperately need supplies that can save lives. Already faced with immense economic challenges and the scourge of diseases like malaria and AIDS, citizens of poorest regions of the world are becoming more dependent on medical donations.

In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that as much as 80 percent of all healthcare supplies in some countries are donated. At the same time, the WHO also believes that approximately 40 percent of donated items are unusable when they are received.

Generosity can also be a mixed blessing, Compton learned. Before coming to Springfield, he worked at a clinic in Jeremie, Haiti as a financial administrator. The clinic was flush with donations but it often received equipment that was broken or so high-tech that workers didn’t know how to use it.

So when he helped found Mission Outreach, it became a top priority to ensure that supplies are working and in good condition when they leave the warehouse. That’s why the mission goes through painstaking steps to see that the surgical sutures haven’t expired, X-ray machine light bulbs work, or that they’re not sending an MRI machine to a clinic that doesn’t even have electricity. Every donation is also bar-coded so that shipments can be tracked anywhere on the five continents, excluding Australia and Antarctica, where the mission has sent donations. Mission Outreach is by no means the largest nonprofit or commercial organization that recycles medical equipment, but few others pay as much attention to detail on the front end, Compton says.

Because word is spreading about the quality of its work, the mission is growing by leaps and bounds. Since last year, the mission has purchased a semi and hired two full-time employees, bringing the total to six. In the first six months of the current fiscal year alone, the mission has more than doubled the value of its shipments, sending out $3.5 million in supplies over the previous fiscal year’s total of $3.1 million.

Mission Outreach became a distinct entity in 2006, separate from the Hospital Sisters, who run St. John’s Hospital in Springfield along with several other hospitals throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. Since then, the mission has shipped supplies weighing 1.1 million pounds and valued at $8.2 million to 43 different countries.

“We’ve really pumped up the volume,” Compton says. “The demand for what we do is growing. We have to find more supplies to give to people.” If things go as planned, the mission will open a second location in Chicago by June 2009, putting the mission closer to hospitals that want to donate as well as freight companies and rail lines.

“We have some success stories. When we ship a container, we ask what we could do better and a lot of times the answer is nothing,” Compton says.

“This is job security right here. The pay isn’t too good but we get a cup of coffee and a doughnut,” jokes Charles Breese as he and fellow volunteer Donna Boyd fold and stack blue hospital scrubs. Breese and Boyd, along with their spouses, Betty and Don, and several other parishioners from Christ the King Catholic Church in Springfield, have been volunteering at the mission each Wednesday for the past two years.

From left to right: CEO Bruce Compton, Sr. Joan Winkler, OSF, and Bishop George Lucas, at the dedication of Mission Outreach’s facility in 2006.
PHOTO Courtesy of Mission Outreach

Breese, a Navy veteran, says the mission is working with an organization to send shipments to Cuba, which is presently off limits without special permission from the U.S. government. “Regardless of what your politics are, the people need it. There are a lot of poor people all over the world who need help,” he says.

The help begins when Mission Outreach receives donations from one of the 13 hospitals of the Hospital Sisters Health System or one of 20 other healthcare organizations in Illinois and Wisconsin that pay the mission to recover material that would otherwise be thrown away.

When it arrives, volunteers sort through the tracheostomy bags, anesthesia machines, warming tables, scalpels, catheters, hospital beds, adult diapers and metal intibators. If necessary, the items are tested, packed, logged into a computer database and warehoused until an order in placed.

“As a former hospital administrator, it bugs me to see how wasteful we are,” says volunteer Al Laabs, a former executive with St. John’s Hospital.

Not everything that comes in the front door can be shipped, however. Of the 630,000 pounds of materials that came into the mission last year, roughly 8 percent had to be discarded for various reasons. Laabs describes the exercise as akin to a treasure hunt. Somehow, a pair of colorful swimming trunks wound up in a shipment of hospital gowns. Another time, volunteers encountered a pair of silicon breast implants. Other items that can’t be shipped include pharmaceuticals, baby formula and hazardous liquids such as acetone.

The Christ the King group, made up of mostly retirees, enjoys the camaraderie, but volunteers also take the work seriously. Whenever one of the volunteers come across a garment so tattered or stained that it must go into the reject pile, the group expresses collective disappointment.

End users, as the recipients are called, can view and order from the online inventory after completing a five-page application. “With first-time users, we mostly stick to beds and gowns,” says mission employee Vicki Detmers, who’s in charge of maintaining the mission’s inventory database.

After a more solid relationship is established, however, users can order whatever they want free of charge except for a handling fee of $8,000 to $10,000 per shipping container. They’re also responsible for finalizing arrangements with customs agents as well as transportation from the port once it arrives in the receiving country.

Some employees have had the opportunity to take mission trips with shipments. “It was an eye-opener to see the end result of this,” says logistics and warehouse manager Brad Walton, who’s been to Haiti and is planning to accompany a shipment to El Salvador in June.

Adorning the walls are certificates of appreciation and plaques from churches and appreciative end users in Haiti, Argentina, Costa Rica, Kenya and Cameroon. Beneficiaries have also been known to drop in from time to time to express their gratitude in person.

“That’s always touching when recipients stop by and say hello,” Detmers says.

Vicki Compton of the Springfield Diocese and Mission Outreach’s Brad Walton examine equipment going to Haiti.
PHOTO Courtesy of Mission Outreach

Last week the mission shipped a cargo container to the town of Jinja in southeast Uganda. Six young men from the University of Notre Dame, who were in Springfield on a retreat, pack the container with, among other things, mattresses, lamps, wheelchairs and steel bed frames each weighing 215 pounds. Compton maintains a watchful eye, intermittently stretching out his measuring tape.

“We’re gonna get it all but just barely,” he announces. “We’ll probably have a little extra space — anybody want to go to Uganda?”

It takes less than an hour for the 1,062 pounds of college students to load up 13,000 pounds of supplies, after which the group joins hands in the customary prayer for the people in Springfield who prepared the shipment as well as for the Ugandan recipients.

Indeed the mission has been a godsend for organizations like the Springfield-based Haitian Development Fund, which operates a clinic in the capital of Port Au Prince.

“They’ve been exceedingly helpful,” says HDF director H. Brent De Land.

HDF began operating a 700-square-foot clinic in 1996 with an annual budget of $5,000, which paid for all of the organization’s expenses, including medical supplies. The group’s operating budget has grown to $33,790 today.

De Land estimates that Mission Outreach supplies 85 percent of the items used at HDF’s clinic — the rest pays the organization’s administrative costs and buys medicine. Thanks to the mission, HDF has a steady supply of items such as tongue depressors, beds and wheelchairs for sick patients who typically arrive at the clinic in wheelbarrows.

Simply put, De Land says, “I don’t know how we would survive without them.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

From Jan. 1, 2007 to Jan. 1, 2009 Mission Outreach shipped 550,000 tons of medical supplies worth an estimated $8.3 million to the following countries: Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia Burundi, Cambodia. Cameroon. China. Colombia. Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Kazakstan, Kenya, Liberia, Macau, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, Russian Federation, Serbia, Somalia, South Africa, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay and Vietnam.

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