TOPICS > World > Social Entrepreneurship

Matching Medical Supplies With Communities in Need

BY Rebecca Jacobson  February 25, 2011 at 12:30 PM EDT

Unloading hospital supplies in Timbuktu, Mali. Photo courtesy of Project C.U.R.E.

James Jackson calls himself the happiest man in the world. He smiles as he walks through Project C.U.R.E.’s chilly warehouse in its Centennial, Colo., headquarters past containers of syringes and gauze, greeting volunteers as they drive forklifts loaded with boxes marked “Panama.”

Project C.U.R.E. (Commission on Urgent Relief & Equipment) collects donated medical supplies and equipment from manufacturers, wholesalers and hospitals and sends the materials to over 120 countries in the developing world. Since Jackson started the organization in 1987, they have delivered more than $450 million worth of medical supplies and services.

Jackson, whose previous career was as an economist, had no idea this is where he would end up when he took a consulting job in Brazil 24 years ago. While he was there he saw what medical care means for the developing world. People waited in lines outside a converted house to see a doctor who performed procedures on a cot in the kitchen. They reused bandages and needles, unable to afford even the most basic medical supplies.

He went to the minister of health and explained that he could send a shipment of medical supplies to this clinic, at no cost to the Brazilians, if the minister of health could guarantee that the delivery got into the country.

With a handshake, the deal was done. The weight of what he had promised hit him as he headed back home to Denver.

“I got back on an airplane and I put my head in my hands and I thought, ‘what have I done to my life? I don’t even know even know where to go get a Band-Aid!’”

He turned to his network of friends, one of whom was a medical-supply wholesaler who gave him overstocked supplies and connected him with others in the industry.

Within 30 days, he had collected more than $250,000 worth of new medical supplies, put it in a shipping container and sent it to Brazil. When the supplies started to inundate Brazil, word spread like wildfire and countries in Central America and the former Soviet Union began asking Jackson for aid.

At every site that will receive their aid, Project C.U.R.E. does a needs assessment, walking through each facility and creating an inventory of exactly how much equipment and supplies will meet their needs. Jackson said he stopped counting after visiting 150 countries.

Hospitals, wholesalers and manufacturers are able to donate medical supplies that otherwise would be thrown away — for a substantial tax write-off.

The items that otherwise would end up in the trash come from hospitals or other institutions that want to upgrade equipment or change the type of supplies they use, such as gloves, IV tubing or syringes, for example, he said. They’re still functional — just no longer needed, except across the developing world.

“It’s like any other thing in economics. The basis of it is everybody has to end up better off,” explained Jackson.

“Coming from an investment background, I view this as an investment process,” said the president, Douglas Jackson, who is James’ son. “Our model is you spend a nickel and we deliver a dollar. We raise $20 and we deliver $400. And for the mom who is getting Ob-Gyn supplies, that’s life and death to her.”

Project C.U.R.E. relies on three things, he says, donations of supplies, donations of money to cover shipping costs and volunteers, who sort donations, package them and put together medical supply kits that can fit in a suitcase.

And while the organization has 12,000 volunteers around the United States, Project C.U.R.E. needs volunteers with experience in the medical field, like Barb Youngberg, a retired operating room nurse. Youngberg said she could use some help when it comes to identifying and testing all the medical equipment they have.

“There’s a lot of stuff that sits back there just because we don’t have anybody to check it out,” she said, pointing to the area of the warehouse where the larger medical equipment is stored. “You can’t just say, ‘oh yeah, here’s the machine’ and send it.”

Youngberg said that sometimes they get donations of equipment that doesn’t work or that Third World clinics and hospitals simply can’t use, like a plethysmograph, a machine used to test lung function that requires a specialized staff.

But there are some supplies they can never get enough of. Ultrasound machines, IV-starting kits and small items like gauze and syringes are worth their weight in gold, Douglas Jackson said.

According to some volunteers, even doing small things like sorting boxes and driving forklifts still makes them feel like they are making a difference in the world.

One such volunteer, Dave Truitt, gestured to the boxes of equipment stacked on shelves around him. “Everything here would have been thrown away,” he said. “You see, we have lots of things, and they have nothing.”