BANGOR, Maine — On a recent sunny fall afternoon, inside a huge, echoing warehouse on outer Hammond Street, warehouse manager Paul Currier was preparing to pack up a mammogram machine and ship it to a hospital in Nicaragua. The gleaming piece of equipment weighs several hundred pounds and was swaddled in quilted blue blankets to protect it from getting dinged-up on its long journey.
“We’ll load it into a lift van” — a sturdy wooden crate roughly the size of a restaurant Dumpster — “and T-brace it to keep it from shifting around,” Currier explained. After that, the crate will be filled in with cardboard boxes of medical supplies and stuffed with brown packing paper to cushion the contents. Then it will be sealed and added to a growing mountain of similar containers stacked at the far end of the warehouse.
On the side of each crate in the floor-to-ceiling pile is scrawled one identifying name: Bach.
The heaping load of donated medical equipment and supplies accumulating in the Consolidated Warehouse building is headed for the Nancy Bach Hospital in the small coastal city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. The 60-bed hospital was opened in 1992 by the Bangor-based group Partners in Health of Maine. The hospital is named in honor of the the wife of the group’s founder and president, longtime Bangor surgeon Dr. Robert Bach. Nancy Bach died of cancer the next year, but the medical facility bearing her name now serves as the health care hub of the region.
Robert Bach, who now lives on the island of North Haven, continues to solicit donations of essential supplies, equipment and cash to keep the hospital in business, and several times each year he brings volunteers with him to Nicaragua to help treat patients and train medical teams in the area. On his next visit, probably in December, he expects to devote his attention to mammography, the radiographic images so critical to finding cancerous breast tumors in the earliest stages.
Most medical providers in the U.S. have switched from analog mammograms to digital. Bach said in a recent interview that though the two donated mammogram machines in the Bangor warehouse use the older technology, they represent an important improvement to services available in Puerto Cabezas.
“There was an older mammogram machine there,” he said. “I brought an old classmate from medical school with me, a radiologist. When we got there, there were 50 ladies lined up outside the room because there is no waiting area. Poor ladies — there was no screen or anything. When we turned on the machine, smoke started coming out of it and that was the end of that.”
So the new machines — one from Lewiston and one from California — are much appreciated. But mammography equipment is touchy stuff, it turns out.
“The temperature in the room has to be just right, the chemicals used [for the images] have to be just right. Everything has to be perfect if you’re going to have good-quality film,” Bach said. So he is raising money for the hospital to build an appropriate exam room and processing lab as well as a pleasant waiting area for the women of Puerto Cabezas. On his next visit, he will bring with him a skilled mammography technician who can train local health workers in the best techniques for capturing an accurate image.
In addition to the two donated mammogram machines, the current shipment contains an ultrasound machine, a breakaway surgical table, hospital stretchers, wheelchairs and boxes and boxes of the kind of medical supplies Americans take for granted that are at a premium in Puerto Cabezas. Sheets, sutures, colostomy supplies, IV tubing, sterile gloves, isolation gowns, bandages, paper for the EKG machine — all of it piled high in the warehouse owned by Veazie businessman Ray Lynch.
Currier, who has been working with Bach’s project for 20 years, said he’s proud to participate by packing and storing the donated materials, and he credits Lynch for supporting Partners in Health of Maine.
“This is our way of helping out. This is a great thing [Bach] does, and we’re proud to be part of it,” he said. “The folks who are receiving these things are so much better off because of the great reuse of this equipment.”
In a few weeks, the mountain of boxes will be trucked to Miami and loaded onto a ship for Nicaragua. But the docking facilties in Puerto Cabezas are in such poor shape, the ship will go instead to the port of Bluefields, Bach said. From there, the supplies from Partners in Health of Maine must travel about 200 miles over rough roads to get to the Nancy Bach Hospital.
Bach said each shipment ends up costing the organization about $14,000 in transportation, customs and other fees, money the group struggles to raise. The organization’s board of directors has considered discontinuing the shipments to Puerto Cabezas.
“But this is one of their big lifelines,” Bach said. “It would be like pulling out someone’s IV before they’re ready to go home.”
People or groups who would like to help get this latest batch of equipment and supplies to Puerto Cabezas can donate by making out a check to Partners in Health of Maine, care of Steve Johnson, 959 Kennebec Road, Hampden 04444. For more information, visit the organization’s website at www.pihom.org.
Note: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect address for donations. The address has been corrected.