2014-05-02 / Front Page

Nonprofit unwraps the high cost of medical waste

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Lillian Gardner, 20, of Scarborough, an aspiring designer currently working as an intern in the fashion marketing program at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, models the dress she created entirely from blue wrap, a material used to cover medical instruments for sterilization and then tossed out after a single use, during the Blue Wrap Project Runway Fashion Show, held April 24 at USM’s Hannaford Hall to benefit South Portlandbased nonprofit Partners for World Health. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Beard Buckley) Lillian Gardner, 20, of Scarborough, an aspiring designer currently working as an intern in the fashion marketing program at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, models the dress she created entirely from blue wrap, a material used to cover medical instruments for sterilization and then tossed out after a single use, during the Blue Wrap Project Runway Fashion Show, held April 24 at USM’s Hannaford Hall to benefit South Portlandbased nonprofit Partners for World Health. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Beard Buckley) SOUTH PORTLAND — A fashion show unlike any other ever seen in the state, because all of the outfits were made from discarded medical fabric, raised enough money for a South Portland nonprofit April 24 to send to cargo containers of medical supplies to the Third World nations of Burundi and Cameroon.

“It was an incredible success, with great music, great food, great support, and some great, great designs,” said event founder Elizabeth McLellan on Tuesday. “We raised close to $30,000, which after costs for the event will net us enough to send these two containers.”


Elizabeth McLellan, founder of Partners for World Health, takes a moment during the third annual Blue Wrap Project Runway Fashion Show. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Beard Buckley) Elizabeth McLellan, founder of Partners for World Health, takes a moment during the third annual Blue Wrap Project Runway Fashion Show. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Beard Buckley) Now in its third year, the Blue Wrap Project Runway Fashion Show is held to raise both funds and public awareness for Partners for World Health, which ships discarded medical supplies from hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities across Maine – as well as from three facilities in New Hampshire – for use in Third World nations in Southeast Asia and Africa.

“I don’t know fashion, but I watch Project Runway,” joked McLellan. “I figured, with all the recyclable material they use in their challenges on that show, why can’t I do something with blue wrap?”

Developed in the 1970s, blue wrap is ordinarily used to wrap medical instruments for sterilization and then discarded after a single use. And McLellan certainly had enough of the material on hand to create the 30 outfits viewed by more than 200 supporters at last week’ show — about 20,000 yards, by her estimation.

A Camden native, McLellan was nurse administrator at Maine Medical Center when she began collecting discarded medical equipment about a decade ago.

While working as vice president of nursing at a hospital in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, she visited numerous hospitals on that side of the planet that were anything but state of the art. Again and again, while recruiting nurses from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, she witnessed first hand a dire need for the same supplies American hospitals toss out on a daily basis in order to maintain a sterile environment. Open a box of 25 gauze bandages for a surgical procedure here, only use 12, and rest, even if not removed from their individual wrappings, go in the trash.

“We have so much and others have so little, I thought I’d put out a box at the hospital and start collecting it,” recalled McLellan. “I couldn’t stand the fact that it was all just going to go to the dump.”

Before long McLellan and accumulated nearly 11,000 pounds of bandages, swaps and tubing in her West End home. She distributed as much as she could carry during infrequent trips overseas, but by 2009, knowing something more was needed, she founded Partners for World Health.

By creating the nonprofit, McLellan went from a one-woman crusade to head of an organization that marshals more than 1,000 volunteer hours per month to collect, sort and ship the medical supplies American hospitals would otherwise throw away.

“All of the things that we collect have not been used. They’re not expired. They’re just things that have been discarded,” McLellan said. “For example, when someone is discharged, if they don’t take the soap or toothbrush that’s unused, or the dressing supplies that are sitting on the window sill still in the box, or anything else, like a wad of tape that they only used three feet of, it all goes in the trash.”

Today, Partners for World Health has grown from McLellan’s living room to encompass a processing center at 2112 Broadway in South Portland, a warehouse in Scarborough and a 3,000-square-foot facility on Preble Street in Portland where volunteers overhaul biomedical equipment, along with five collection sites in Maine. Those sites are serviced by trucks from K Brothers in Westbrook, which would otherwise return with empty vans from deliveries to Prompto oil change centers across the state.

“They’ve been wonderful, as are all of our volunteers,” said McLellan, who puts in 40 to 50 hours per week toward the effort, all unpaid.

“I really believe in this mission, and when you believe in something, you put your heart and soul into it,” she said.

Having recently sent a container to Rwanda containing, among other things, several hospital beds and 250 boxes of medial supplies, McLellan’s organization currently has enough material on hand to stuff 10 more of the 40-footlong shipping containers in uses. Another two will soon be leaving for Senegal and Syria and McLellan hopes to ship 12 containers by year’s end.

Each container can hold about $250,000 worth of supplies, but even with the receiving hospital paying as much as $4,000 toward the shipping bill, getting the material form here to there can still cost Partners for World Health more than $15,000.

That’s where the blue wrap show, which has quickly become the group’s signature event, comes in, partly because one thing not in those containers is any of the blue wrap. Hospitals in Africa don’t want it, McLellan said. They prefer the same reusable cotton towels American hospitals relied on to sterilize equipment before blue wrap came on the market.

“Every day, in all 39 hospitals in Maine, and in every hospital across the United States, every single surgical case they do generates blue wrap,” said McLellan, noting that even sterilization of tools for a simple gall bladder surgery can use up to 20 of the 3-foot by 4-foot sheets, at a cost of up to $2.50 each.

“And it’s a plastic base, so none of it disintegrates,” she said. “It just sits in a land fill forever and ever.”

In addition to the medical supplies it collects and distributes, Partners for World Health also organizes medical missions and school construction in poor nations, with plans to use some of the blue wrap to help women escape sex trafficking by providing them with an occupation in which they can create and sell blankets and pillows made from the polypropylene blue wrap material.

Beyond that, and some material on the west coast that is bundled and shipped to China – “Lord knows what they use it for,” McLellan said – the rest goes to the dump. Except for what hit the local runway. And what hit the runway was not exactly easy to work with.

“It’s hard because it doesn’t act like regular fabric, it doesn’t fold or lay flat the same way,” said Lillian Gardner, 20, of Scarborough, an aspiring designer currently working as an intern in the fashion marketing program at the Portland Arts and Technology High School.

Jane Krasnow, leader of the PATHS fashion marketing class, said being part of the blue wrap show was especially useful to her students, four of whom, in addition to Gardner, were among the 10 designers accepted into the juried show.

Working with the unusual material spurs their creativity, she said, while having to present their work to the public helps focus their attention on the fundamentals.

“This gets them so close and personal, it’s just a great project,” Krasnow said. “It’s fun because the blue wrap is about the most horrible material you could possibly use. You can’t iron it, you can’t dye it, and it doesn’t drape like a normal fabric. It takes a lot or ingenuity and creativity to make it come alive.”

“Everybody was awed,” said McLellan of this year’s designs, which, in keeping with past year’s traditions, could end up on display at Portland Public Library.

“People just couldn’t believe the creativity and the artistry that went into each design, and neither could I,” said McLellan. “It was really amazing.”

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