Global Links marks 20 years of sharing medical cast-offs with world

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The Greater Pittsburgh area has multiple hospitals, each with surplus equipment and supplies that once would end up in landfills.

And that was occurring despite the desperate need for medical supplies in poor nations.

But the imbalance between the medical haves and have-nots wasn't lost on Kathleen Hower, who co-founded the nonprofit Global Links to remedy the situation.

As a notable Pittsburgh success story for 20 years, the Garfield-based organization collects and redistributes hospital surplus to needy countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Tomorrow Global Links, with its motto -- "Sharing surplus. Saving lives" -- will celebrate its 20th anniversary and its accomplishments in keeping thousands of tons of medical surplus out of the waste stream and redirecting it to Third World hospitals and clinics.

The anniversary will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Roberto Clemente Museum at Engine House 25 at 339 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville.

Last year alone, Global Links collected 200 tons of medical supplies from local hospitals and shipped them to hospitals and clinics in Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua.

Global Links stores its huge inventory in a warehouse in Homewood, where it loads 300 to 400 boxes into each 40-foot-long sea container for shipment to hospitals or clinics. It has sent 66 shipments to Nicaragua and 93 total shipments to Cuba over the years. This year it already has sent 30 shipments, with expectations of sending nine more by year's end.

The hundreds of items collected include blood-pressure units, scales, mattresses, beds, cribs, crutches, intravenous poles, chairs, furniture, file cabinets, linens, plastic gloves, syringes, bandages and suture materials. In 2006, Global Links shipped 423 mattresses and 295 hospital beds. After Hurricane Jeanne struck the Caribbean in 2004, it sent refrigerators to the Dominican Republic for blood storage.

"Most hospitals [in poor nations] don't have crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and nebulizers," Ms. Hower said. "There are never enough gloves. They often are washed and reused."

Each year United States hospitals and medical facilities generate more than $6 billion in medical surplus, with 2,000 tons of unused surgical supplies discarded from operating rooms alone, Ms. Hower said.

"It's an expense in the system that always will be there," she said, noting that hospitals are working to reduce the surplus. "So why not find a good way to use it? I'm proud of the hospitals for taking it on."

Once a week, a Global Links truck travels to participating hospitals and returns to Lawrenceville, where supplies are sorted, boxed and coded for systematic storage and retrieval inside its warehouse. Equipment and furniture are repaired or refurbished when necessary. Global Links, operating on a $1.5 million annual budget, also purchases some medical supplies.

"Our goal is not to throw anything into the waste stream," Ms. Hower said.

Surplus occurs when hospitals upgrade equipment that requires new supplies. When hospitals began using safety syringes, for example, that left a large supply of unused traditional syringes that Global Links recovered for redistribution.

Global Links worked with Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for two years before the hospital moved to its new location in Lawrenceville and received 17 truckloads of equipment and supplies from the old hospital in Oakland. UPMC hospitals also provided it with 3,000 intravenous poles when it upgraded its I.V. equipment that could not use the old poles. Volunteers painted them and created a forest of poles awaiting shipment to other countries.

"It's a symbiotic relationship," said David A. Hargraves, director of strategic sourcing, logistics and distribution for the UPMC Supply Chain. UPMC has donated hundreds of tons of surplus medical supplies and equipment to Global Links over the past 20 years. "We are more focused on sustainability and green initiatives, and we've had a long-standing relationship with Global Links, and we've deepened that relationship.

"It's a local partnership with a mutual goal," he said, noting that UPMC and Global Links both aspire to improve health care and reduce the number of items reaching the waste stream.

Global Links also accepts office furniture, which Third World hospitals often can't afford because they devote their budgets to medications and supplies.

Global Links works with the World Health Organization, the ministries of health in participating nations and their hospitals to assure all supplies and equipment are needed and will be used.

Volunteers logged 6,000 hours last year with Global Links.

"We are helping hospitals be green and more environmentally responsible," Ms. Hower said. "I think the model we use is extremely responsible.

"This is the right thing to do."

David Templeton can be reached at and 412-253-1578.


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