Pictures of children with cleft lips so moved Robert Simpson, then a hospital materials manager in Norwood, Mass., he began an adventure that would lead him to Ecuador, Peru and other poor countries.
En route, Simpson became perhaps the biggest individual solicitor of free medical supplies in the nation, gathering an estimated $18 million to $20 million in goods since 1987 for surgical missions abroad.
"He has a very tornado-like personality," said William Donato, a longtime friend and an executive at surgical supplier Ethicon. "When he believes in something, he believes in it."
Simpson, 49, is now vice president of Braintree, Mass.-based Healthcare Services of New England, a purchasing group and service company, and president of the Chicago-based American Society of Healthcare Materials Management. His calling, however, is sweet-talking, browbeating and otherwise prodding hospitals and manufacturers into coughing up surplus and outdated supplies to help poor children.
"I'm a pain in the neck," Simpson said. "All the suppliers know that when Bob Simpson comes into a room, he is looking for something to take to his kids."
On a mission for contributions, Simpson doesn't hold back, sometimes displaying heart-wrenching photographs of grossly deformed children. "I say, `Hello, Bill, how are your beautiful children?'*" Simpson said. "I say, `Look at this picture. This kid has a terrible hole in his face that we can fix. Wouldn't you like for him to be as beautiful as your kids?'*"
The secret to Simpson's success, however, is his presence and passion. "Bob can warm up a room because of his physical size," Donato said. "You feel like he's your friend, like you've been friends for a long time, and then he'll get you."
Simpson not only convinced surgical-instrument maker Pilling Week, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to shell out $5,000 in cash for his latest project, but he also inspired its vice president of sales and marketing to join him. Dennis Kogod had never even been camping, but he used a week of vacation in September to rough it in Ecuador with Simpson and a surgical team.
"You can't help but get wrapped up in what he's talking about," Kogod said. "He is the most charitable person I've ever met."
Simpson was a heavy equipment operator and medic during six years of military service, which included the Vietnam War. He took a job supervising mobile collection units for American Red Cross Blood Services, moved through the ranks to operations manager, was recruited to run materials management for a research center, and then began working for hospitals.
Throughout, Simpson occasionally would find supplies for surgeons planning missions to Third World countries-but never with the fervor that would consume him in 1987. Then, he visited the office of a surgeon who specialized in repairing facial deformities and was struck by a display of photographs showing children before and after surgery.
A few months later, Simpson was whitewashing the walls of a clinic near Guayaquil, Ecuador, on the first of a about a dozen trips there and elsewhere.
Simpson became so devoted he spent Thanksgiving 1989 at a leper colony outside Guayaquil. A Catholic nun at the colony regularly receives supply shipments organized by Simpson, including washing machines and paint, as well as medical products.
Personal tragedy feeds his passion. On Aug. 6, 1989, a drunken driver struck and killed his 18-year-old son, Bobby. Bereft, Simpson and his wife, Linda, formed a foundation to help children. They run it with their two daughters, Kathy, 25, and Michelle, 20.
The Bobby Foundation offers eight annual college scholarships of $500 to $1,000, buys prom dresses for teen-age girls who can't afford the cost, and pays freight to send supplies abroad, among other charitable acts. "We just wanted to help other kids, where we didn't have our son to help," Linda Simpson said.
Her husband has worked with several groups that organize surgical missions to Third World countries, including Healing the Children Northeast in New Milford, Conn., and Caring for Kids in Brockton, Mass. "Whoever asks him, that's who he helps," she said.
The September trip, Project Perfect World, was sponsored by the American Society of Healthcare Materials Management, which raised $20,000 in cash and $400,000 in supplies. Physicians treated about 60 people, mostly children with deformities.
The society plans to back another mission next year, and Simpson is hard at work seeking free supplies and pleading for cash contributions to cover travel costs.
A few months before the September trip, trucks began rolling up to the Simpsons' East Bridgewater, Mass., home. Deliveries of bandages, sutures and other medical supplies eventually would pack two rooms. "Other people are out on a Saturday night going to movies; I'm sitting at home counting catheters," Simpson groused.
But the rewards are unbeatable, he said. "Just take a trip. You see the smile on kids' faces, and it changes your life."