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Since its founding in 2009, the nonprofit Partners for World Health has collected millions of dollars in medical equipment and supplies that hospitals in Maine and elsewhere in New England no longer want or need. The organization then ships them across the globe to places including Pakistan, Syria and South Sudan.
The organization has grown from a small warehouse on Marginal Way in Portland to multiple buildings in Maine and Vermont that today are full of beds, masks, EKG machines, IV poles and other items that hospitals would otherwise throw away. Some of them have never been used.
These days, as the health care system in the U.S. braces for a surge in coronavirus cases, the hospitals that have donated usable equipment and supplies are asking for some of it back, or asking for donations of their own, so they have beds for makeshift intensive care units, machines that can work as ventilators for coronavirus patients and masks for their medical workers.
The requests come as the number of coronavirus cases steadily grow in Maine and the U.S. and hospitals find themselves increasingly burdened by a sick population and low supplies of protective equipment.
“What’s happened because of the coronavirus is that we’re getting a lot of calls from our partners saying, ‘We donated four ventilators to you. Would you mind if we borrowed them for this surge that we’re anticipating?’” said Partners founder Elizabeth McLellan. “And of course we don’t mind.”
“Borrow” is the key term there.
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McLellan said she plans to collect some of the reusable equipment later to fulfill shipment orders — hopefully in a few months if the unpredictable pandemic has abated. Disposable items such as gloves and gowns will not be recollected.
Some of those items have become critical in the fight against the new coronavirus’ spread.
Northern Light Health’s Mercy Hospital in Portland recently received 2,000 N-95 masks from Partners, augmenting the hospital’s supply of the masks best suited to protect health care workers from the virus by filtering out the air particles they breathe in.
And Portsmouth Regional Hospital in New Hampshire received three anesthesia machines it had recently donated to Partners. The equipment usually pumps a steady flow of anesthesia into patients during surgical procedures, but can serve as an alternative to a traditional ventilator. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for how the machines can be converted to serve coronavirus patients.
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Nicholas Vetrano, Portsmouth Regional’s director of business development, said the three machines will help the hospital execute its surge plan, which includes opening a second intensive care unit should the hospital be overwhelmed. It currently has 14 ICU beds.
The hospital does not need the second unit yet, Vetrano said. But, “all it would take is for one assisted living facility to have an outbreak, and in a day or two we would be filled up,” he said. “It could happen at a moment’s notice, so it’s nice to have the equipment on hand.”
McLellan — a veteran nurse who has seen how much equipment hospitals can waste and began collecting medical equipment in her home in 2007 — said protective gear is in especially high demand.
A client in Pakistan recently asked for 20 million gloves and 10 million N-95 masks, which Partners did not have. McLellan said the organization’s supply of masks was diminished greatly in January, when it sent 85,000 N-95 masks to China. Partners volunteers are instead working on making masks to distribute to first responders and health care workers.
Like everyone else, Partners is feeling the effects of the virus as it tries to maintain its operations.
McLellan said her volunteer pool has “diminished drastically” with the outbreak as more people stay home, so there are fewer people to pick up and sort donated items. But she said hospitals are still willing to donate equipment, and shipments are still going out, although Partners’ volunteers are taking precautions to limit contact with others.
And while the relationship between Partners and its partner hospitals has shifted during the crisis, McLellan said it makes sense for her organization to help out its partners during the crisis.
“What goes around comes around,” she said. “They helped me out when I needed all this stuff so I could organize it and send it to people in different parts of the world. And now it’s time for me to help them out.”
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