Winnipeg-based charity International HOPE Canada has sent more than 500 tonnes of medical supplies and equipment to hospitals and clinics in developing countries around the globe over the last 15 years
International HOPE Canada founder Phyllis Reader stands amid a warehouse full of medical supplies and equipment.
BY BOB ARMSTRONG
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, July / August 2012
It's mid-morning on a Saturday in June, and the
warehouse is buzzing with activity.
About two dozen volunteers - all members of International HOPE Canada - are
loading all manner of medical supplies and equipment into a shipping container
bound for South America.
Blankets, sheets, syringes, rubber gloves, cataract surgery kits, stretchers,
hospital beds, crash carts and wheel chairs - they're all flying up the ramp and
into the container. Much of the material, which is donated by hospitals and clinics
throughout Manitoba, is obsolete or no longer suitable for use. The volunteers
have even managed to lay their hands on a slightly used anaesthesia machine - a
valuable commodity in the re-purposed medical equipment market.
By the time all is said and done on this day, these volunteers will load more than
10 tonnes of medical supplies into this container, which will eventually find its
way to Peru and to hundreds of people in need.
It's a remarkable undertaking, one that is not lost on Delayne Weeks,
a community development co-ordinator with Alberta-based Angkor Gold
Corporation, which is paying to transport the supplies to Peru. "I don't know of
anything else like this in Canada," says Weeks, who was one of the volunteers
helping out on this day. "This organization is second to none."
Volunteers Delayne Weeks and Roma Maconachie take a break from loading a container with medical supplies.
Indeed, there is no other organization quite like International HOPE Canada.
The Winnipeg-based charity was started by Phyllis Reader, a retired operating
room nurse, following a nursing trip to Ecuador in 1997. During her visit she saw
how bent, rusted needles were being used for suturing. Upon her return to Canada,
she asked colleagues if they could collect surplus medical supplies to send to
hospitals and clinics in the developing world.
As supplies started to come in, she asked to use a locked room at Westminster
United Church for storage. When friends Sonia and Merv Michalyshen returned
to Winnipeg briefly during a three-year mission to Malawi, Africa, Reader offered
to let them take what they needed back to the desperately poor southern African
Parishioners at the Michalyshens' church, Holy Redeemer, were also working to
collect and send supplies to the couple after they returned to Malawi. Volunteers
from both groups then got together, leading to the formal establishment of
International HOPE as a charitable group in 2001.
Board member and past president Roma Maconachie admits the volunteers who
formed the nucleus of the group didn't know what they were getting into when
they started collecting old medical supplies.
"There was no template for us to follow," she says. "People are always asking us,
'Where else does this occur?' Nowhere."
Things really got moving when a businessman who
was an early supporter offered the fledgling organization
a 3,500-square-foot warehouse.
Initially, says Reader, the focus of the group was
medical supplies of the sort a doctor or nurse might
fill a suitcase with prior to an international mission:
disposable items like sutures, sponges, and gloves, or
small instruments like scalpels and scissors. But the
organization's volunteers soon discovered there was
more surplus material than that - and a huge appetite
for it in the developing world. In 2003, the organization
was offered 200 hospital beds that would otherwise have
been disposed of as scrap metal.
"We thought, 'Oh, that would be lovely,'" recalls
Those 200 beds turned out to be the tip of a hospital-furniture iceberg. Across Manitoba, hospitals switched from old-style
mechanical beds to modern and ergonomically better electric ones,
leaving thousands of old beds surplus.
As word spread, the organization began to get ever more specialized
and sophisticated supplies and equipment. On one occasion, when the
dental unit at a seniors' complex was closing, International HOPE was
offered a full dental suite.
When a dentist friend looked at the equipment being offered, says
Reader, "He went and he saw it and said, 'Oh my God, this would be
The suite of dental equipment - including the chair, lights, instrument
console and X-ray machine - went to Zambia, where it was used to treat
hundreds of children and then left behind for other visiting dentists to
provide service for an entire region.
On other occasions, the organization has shipped custom-made but
never-used prosthetics to countries such as Cambodia and Uganda, where war and the lingering effects of landmines have led to
many people losing limbs.
Canada volunteer Sonia
Michalyshen (right) and
Sister Florence help an
elderly woman get used to
a recycled walker.
To make room for the influx of equipment,
International HOPE's warehouse space (still paid for
by the anonymous donor) grew to the current 40,000
square feet. Once they had room, the organization
began getting more and more bulky items, including
wheelchairs, examining tables, operating tables and
more. "We started to get complete operating rooms,"
The influx of equipment was, in part, a result
of medical services being centralized in regional
hospitals across Manitoba, leaving many small, rural
hospitals with surplus equipment and instruments.
At the same time, notes Maconachie, technological
improvements meant that many pieces of equipment
that had become obsolete in Canada were still
valuable in the developing world.
In many cases new, less-invasive surgical
techniques provide better outcomes and faster
recovery times for Canadian patients. But the
developing world lacks the technology and wealth
to move to these new techniques. In the hospitals in
the developing world, Canada's obsolete supplies are
often better than anything they have.
Reader has seen that reality first-hand. She
describes an experience while on a mission in a
remote corner of northeastern India called Nagaland
when a boy needed to have a painful bone spur
removed. After searching fruitlessly for a bone saw,
she ended up finding a hacksaw in the hospital's tool
shed, sterilizing it in boiling water, and handing it to
Much of the surplus material comes into
International HOPE's hands because our wealth
allows us to err much farther on the side of caution
than people in the developing world. Some items at
International HOPE's warehouse are past best-before
dates. An unopened box of latex gloves, for example,
may be considered waste here because it's past an
arbitrary expiry date. But in many parts of the world,
throwing out an unused box of gloves would be
unthinkable. "In Africa, they wash and rewash those
gloves until they fall off your hands," says Reader.
Other items collected by International HOPE are
considered single-use instruments, even though they
can be sterilized and used again. Reader cites the
use of cataract surgical kits that contain eye patches,
gloves, gauze, and a few different kinds of forceps
and scissors. In Canada, once the kit is opened,
even the items that haven't been used are treated
as garbage, and the scissors and forceps are treated
as single-use instruments and thrown out. Since
about 2003-04, staff at Misericordia Health Centre
have been collecting the unused portions of the kits,
sterilizing the "single use" instruments, and sending them to International HOPE.
"We've sent thousands and thousands of those abroad,"
Staff at the Concordia Hospital, who will take supplies
from International HOPE with them when they carry out
hip and knee replacements in Nicaragua this fall, have also
been collecting surplus goods and recycling "single-use"
instruments for International HOPE for several years.
Not everything collected at International HOPE is useable.
In one corner of the warehouse is a section of older medical
equipment referred to as the archival area. These outdated,
and in some cases non-functioning, supplies have been used
by filmmakers needing to recreate a hospital or examining
room for a movie set in a specific period.
International HOPE's equipment has found its way onto
the stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and into
films, such as the adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The
Stone Angel. Producers provide an honorarium to the
Because the supplies being sent abroad are considered
waste in Canada, they have virtually no value here. But for
the receiving hospitals and clinics, the container is likely
to contain supplies worth anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000.
A girl named Mercy tries out a recycled walker from
International HOPE Canada at a boarding school
for kids with polio.
Volunteers with the organization even carry out repairs on some pieces
of equipment, such as wheelchairs and stretchers. At a pair of workstations
in the warehouse, tools are lined up for repairing materials that just need a
bit of TLC to be useful.
Receiving, cataloguing, and repairing donated material - as well as
helping with the general administration of the organization - take up
about 10,000 hours per year of volunteer labour, says Maconachie. That
labour comes from a pool of volunteers, about 75 per cent of whom are
former health-care workers and 95 per cent of whom are retired.
One volunteer couple based in Neepawa actually travelled around
western Manitoba picking up surplus goods at local hospitals and nursing
homes for International HOPE.
A long list of businesses have also provided in-kind services to help
the organization with picking up goods from hospitals and other health
For several years now, volunteers at International HOPE have put
together eight, and sometimes more, shipments per year.
In the organization's office, a map of the world bristles with coloured
pins denoting countries where International HOPE has sent full shipping
containers, pallets and crates, or boxes of supplies.
Countries receiving full containers include Ecuador, Ethiopia, Haiti, the
Philippines, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Other shipments have gone to
Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Vietnam,
South Sudan and many other countries.
International HOPE provides the supplies and equipment, and partners
with an organization that pays for the cost of sending the goods abroad.
Often, a community organization with roots in a particular country will
take on the fundraising to send a shipment back to their former home. The
Mennonite Benevolent Society, for example, raised funds to send eight
containers to Ukraine to help stock nursing homes and hospitals.
The container bound for Peru in early June
was paid for by a Canadian junior mining
company, Angkor Gold Corporation, that
is active in that country. Supplies in that
shipment were expected to be distributed to a
number of needy hospitals and clinics in the
area around Chiclayo, Peru.
Not all the supplies go out in big container
loads. Health-care workers going abroad to
volunteer still come by the warehouse on
"shopping" trips to fill up a bag with supplies.
In one upcoming case, International HOPE
will be working with the Yemeni Consulate
to send a load of medical supplies to that
troubled nation on the Arabian Peninsula.
Typically, putting together a load will
involve some back and forth between
International HOPE and the receiving
hospital or health department. The receiving
organization will have a shopping wish list and
the Winnipeg organization will send a list of
what they have available.
For legal reasons, the receiving organization
will need to sign a waiver before accepting
the recycled supplies. After all the funds have
been raised by the partner group and all the
customs paperwork has been taken care of, the
actual day of loading the shipping container is
as much a celebration as it is a day of manual
"The energy of loading up that trailer is
amazing," says Reader.
"It's the culmination of a year of work," adds
Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer.
Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.