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U.Va. MERCI Project recovers $18 million in medical supplies

By Catherine Seigerman

When U.Va. nurse Helen French completed her first inventory of trash in the 19 operating rooms at the Medical Center in 1992, she discovered "gold" -- dozens of clean, unused medical supplies, such as surgical gloves, face masks, gauze and sutures. They were being incinerated along with the used supplies.

"People thought that everything in an OR was infectious. What I saw were all these clean supplies that were unwrapped but never used," said French, who has spent 11 of her 26 years as an operating room nurse at U.Va. As a result, French founded the Medical Equipment Recovery of Clean Inventory Project at U.Va., which donates the clean, unused medical supplies to charities. Recently the project's donation total surpassed $18 million worth of recovered supplies.

"MERCI has provided more than 80 tons of recovered supplies to humanitarian missions," she said.

The unused supplies come mainly from surgical kits prepared in advance to save time. However, clean gloves in the kit, for example, might not be the correct size for the surgeons and go unused, or more packets of sutures may be provided than are needed.

"Individually, it doesn't look like much, but when you collect it, that's when the amount becomes huge," French said.

The hospital administration told French she could set up her proposed trash separation system in the U.Va. operating rooms, and educate staff to use it. French gathered and processed the supplies, maintained inventory and coordinated donations in her spare time. In 1995, U.Va. began to pay her one day per week to process supplies, although she still volunteers additional time with sporadic help from volunteers.

"The thing that propels the system is that people know that they're helping others in need," she said.

Non-profit organizations receiving MERCI donations range from the American Red Cross to smaller relief groups, like Mercy Ships of Texas. The organizations pick up these donations or arrange for shipping. Last winter, one hospital in Lithuania received 86,000 pounds of supplies. Since 1992, 89 tons have gone to 19 countries. This year's total topped 30,000 pounds. More than 5,000 pounds were recycled at U.Va.'s hospital and research labs.

International volunteer work by U.Va. doctors and nurses through Operation Smile is often supplied by the MERCI Project. The recently formed group, Nursing Students Without Borders, also received some supplies this year. Other local recipients include the Free Clinic, rescue squads and U.Va.'s Camp Holiday Trails.

French now serves on a federal Environmental Protection Agency task force to reduce total waste and presented the MERCI project at a National Institutes of Health conference last fall, where it was cited as a best practice. She promotes the program as a model for other university hospitals.

"There's a lot more going on than just processing supplies. It's helping others, helping the environment and saving money," she said.



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