Eric Swenson is one of those people who knows how to make the system work when it doesn't seem to work of its own volition.
Swenson heads H. Victory Ltd., a not-for-profit group that collects tons of unused medical supplies routinely discarded by Denver-area hospitals and sends them to Third World countries.
"People by the thousands are dying because they don't have the medical supplies we throw away," Swenson said.
Since founding H. Victory in December 1994, he has collected what amounts to three truckloads of medical equipment, such as sutures, latex gloves, gowns, dressings and instruments, and shipped them to countries such as former Soviet Latvia and Kazakhstan in central Asia.
Swenson said the influx of supplies into these areas can have a dramatic impact and mean the difference between life and death for those in need of surgery.
Federal regulations require hospitals to throw away unused supplies-often still in their protective wrappers-that are left over after surgery and other medical procedures, Swenson said.
"There are so many federal requirements that we have become a very wasteful society," Swenson said. "We dump tons and tons of this stuff every day at hospitals across the country."
The Yale School of Medicine in 1992 estimated 2,000 tons, or $200 million worth of supplies, are discarded each year.
"We consider that to be a modest estimate. You need to have these materials ready to anticipate potential disaster, and everybody has a different idea of disaster," said William H. Rosenblat, M.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Yale who headed the research.
Swenson began working in the medical field when he was 13 and at age 16 took over his father's crutch, brace, walker and wheelchair rental service business.
While working in spinal surgery rooms as a medical tech sales representative, Swenson realized discarded medical supplies could be put to good use.
"These items are perfectly good, but unusable here. In countries like Russia, they're too expensive to buy even if they were available," Swenson said.
Every month, Swenson and his volunteers collect supplies from six Denver-area hospitals, filling three to four large containers at each stop. The participating hospitals are Rose Medical Center, University Hospital, Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, Provenant-St. Anthony Hospital Central, Lutheran Medical Center and Children's Hospital. Other hospitals in Colorado and Wyoming also are involved, according to Swenson.
Every six months, the collected supplies fill a 40-foot container that's shipped to a needy country. The last shipment went to Latvia in December and contained more than $165,000 worth of medical supplies and equipment, Swenson said.
"I'd rather see it used in a Third World country," said Linda Shinnick, an orthopedic clinical nurse at Presbyterian-St. Luke's, one of the contributing facilities.
Swenson said medical supply manufacturers are being encouraged to contribute similar items, and corporate contributions are being sought to pay for the shipments.
This year, Swenson's medical mission group will be going to Ecuador to set up a heart clinic, to Latvia to do a follow-up trip on last year's Christmas medical supply delivery, and to an area of western Pakistan called the "Land of No Hope" by Pakistanis, Swenson said.
Swenson said more medical facilities are becoming interested in the program because of rising waste disposal costs, and his goal is to implement the program in every major U.S. city. He has launched sister organizations in Sacramento, Calif., and Houston. Swenson also educates foreign doctors about infection control.