Medical supplies find way to needy through Outreach

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nearly 10 tons of material. More than 600 individual pieces. It took four men about two hours and 15 minutes on Nov. 21 to load the medical equipment, furniture and books into a shipping container bound for Bishop Shanahan Hospital in Nsukka, Nigeria.

The load, sent from the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach warehouse in Bedford Park, contains everything from an x-ray unit and surgical gowns to crutches and commodes, all ordered by the hospital. It is one of three containers on its way to Nsukka; the other two were sent from Springfield, where the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis base their medical supply ministry.

Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach receives shipments from nearly 70 partner hospitals, medical supply companies and health care institutions in Illinois and Wisconsin, all of which contribute to help pay for Mission Outreach’s work.

After all, if they didn’t send their used equipment to Mission Outreach, they would have to pay to dispose of it some other way, said Mary Ann Skvara, the assistant manager for warehouse and logistics, who runs the Bedford Park warehouse.

“All of this would end up in landfills,” she said.

Chicago-area institutions that participate include Resurrection Health Care, Mercy Hospital System and Medical Center, Rush University Medical Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The supplies come to the warehouse, sometimes in neatly labeled cartons — often overstocks from Medline, a Chicagoarea medical supply company — but often jumbled together. Volunteers come in six days a week to sort donations, first by expiration date and then into general categories.

Items in each general category get sorted again, then labeled and entered into the database, which forms a sort of catalogue that recipients can browse through to choose exactly what they need.

All volunteers are welcome, but those with a medical or surgical background are especially needed, Skvara said, because they can identify some of the equipment that stymies the laypeople. Groups come from parishes, including St. Mary, Riverside; from high schools, including Queen of Peace and Marist; and from colleges, including Lewis University.

Recipients don’t pay a penny for the items, but they do pay for the shipping containers and transportation to wherever they are, unless they can find a sponsor to absorb the cost. But that all works out to a fraction of the cost they would otherwise have to pay. The contents of each shipping container Mission Outreach sends averages between $100,000 and $140,000 in value, Skvara said.

The shipment going to Nsukka — sponsored by Rotary International District 6450 in conjunction with the archdiocese — is valued at more than $210,000, according to Vicki Detmers, data systems facilitator for Mission Outreach in Springfield.

Rotary International is one of several organizations that works with mission outreach to sponsor containers, as is the Order of Malta.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, the agency sent 55 shipping containers around the world, with contents valued at about $6.3 million.

Some equipment moves in smaller batches, carried as luggage by doctors and nurses on their own medical mission trips.

Skvara, of Western Springs, learned about Mission Outreach after talking to someone planning such a trip. The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis started their medical- supply matchmaking in Springfield in 2002 and within several years, were interested in opening a site in the Chicago area. The need for another site became urgent when Medline offered 20 truckloads of equipment and the Hospital Sisters needed a place to store it.

They hired Skvara to pull the operation together, and by early 2010, just after a massive earthquake struck Haiti, it was up and running.

“We had more success getting things in to Haiti following the earthquake than some organizations because we already had relationships with institutions there,” Skvara said. “We also were able to work with the Navy to get things in.”

Most shipments from Mission Outreach aren’t aimed at immediate disaster relief. Rather, they are headed to areas that suffer from chronic, grinding need.

The shipment going to Nsukka is heading to a diocese with which the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Catholic Schools has a relationship. It’s because of that relationship that Mission Outreach agreed to include some desks and books in its shipment.

On the morning the shipment is to leave, all of the items to be shipped are stacked by the loading dock or in the aisles. The four men — a part-time Mission Outreach employee and four volunteers — joked as they wait for the truck with shipping container to arrive. When it does, they start packing it in by hand, arranging beds and desks and crutches like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

About two months after it leaves, Skvara said, it will arrive in Nsukka.