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Global Good Health: Providing Medical Supplies to Needy Countries

Danielle Butin with family in Africa
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TJ Allan
TJ Allan

If a surgical team lays out a supply of sutures, bandages, syringes, and gauze before an operation, all of the supplies in the room—even those never opened—must be thrown away afterward to prevent possible cross-contamination. Perfectly good medical equipment, such as X-ray machines, microscopes, and operating tables, becomes quickly outdated and replaced with cutting-edge models.

Danielle learned the same regulations didn't apply in developing countries, and that the equipment would be extremely valuable too. Unopened packages of rubber gloves, gently used incubators, and slightly worn delivery tables routinely discarded from American maternity wards would be welcome relief to laboring mothers in Rwanda, where physicians were delivering babies on lawn furniture and, in worse cases, dirt floors.

During her flight home from Africa, Danielle wrote up a list of all the people she knew in New York City hospitals who might help her acquire equipment. By the time her kids, Sally, Caroline, and Sam (then 9, 13, and 15), were back in school in September, Danielle was determined to launch a nonprofit foundation dedicated to collecting and redistributing discarded medical supplies. One month later she teamed up with Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based nonprofit that sends medical provisions to developing nations. "They started by giving me a wish list of items several hospitals in Haiti had specifically requested," Danielle says. With PIH's reputation and her own corporate health care connections to back her, Danielle found that persuading hospitals to donate was surprisingly easy. Just two months into her pursuit Danielle, who had expected to run the entire organization from her home office, ran out of storage space.

In November 2007 Danielle had to make the tough call of dipping into the modest income she was living on—which came from a severance package and part-time salary she earned teaching—to fund a lease on a warehouse space. There, she finally had a place to stock the ever-growing flood of catheters, IV poles, bandages, sutures, wheelchairs, side tables, and stretchers flooding in from area medical centers. At the same time, she started the application process for nonprofit status for her foundation, which she named Afya, meaning "good health" in Swahili. She put the word out to friends and former colleagues—including people from the medical field, attorneys who had worked in health care, and people with experience founding other grassroots organizations—asking them to volunteer to work on Afya's board of directors.

Within weeks a group of five professionals rallied behind Danielle to pitch in with the advice and guidance she needed to run her new foundation. On a cold day in March 2008, after months of sorting and packing, Danielle, along with a group of a dozen volunteers—including her children, boyfriend Tracy Allan, neighbors, and friends—stood outside Afya's warehouse and watched as the lid was sealed shut on a packed 40-foot container. PIH was footing the costs of this first shipment, headed for Haiti, which would then be distributed by officials to several facilities. "When they closed that crate people were crying," says Danielle. "We all knew what was inside was going to breathe life into another place far away. I remember thinking, I never want this feeling to end."