In 1991, before Dr. Lee Ponsky attended medical school, he spent time on a medical compound in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, where there was a severe lack of medical supplies. He and the other medical staff members were in need of basic supplies such as rubber gloves and saline.
Dr. Ponsky, 48, of Moreland Hills said that they mixed water and salt to make their own saline solution. They cut fishing lines, which had to be sterilized, to use as suture to sew up patients’ wounds. The volunteers washed and reused gloves, even sewing up holes in gloves. The gloves were used for surgeries, and the villagers saved plastic bread bags for the doctors to use for regular exams.
Dr. Ponsky is now chairman of the Department of Urology at University Hospitals of Cleveland and the director of the Urologic Oncology Center, where there are plenty of supplies.
“If you go to an operating room today for a hernia, they open five packages of sutures. To repair the hernia, they only use half. The other ones they don’t use can’t be used on the next person, so they throw them away,” he said of regulations followed by U.S. medical centers. “We took the idea of knowing that there was stuff being thrown away and there is stuff needed, and get it into the hands of people who need it.”
In 1993, Dr. Ponsky founded MedWish, a nonprofit organization that repurposes discarded, yet usable and sterile, medical supplies and equipment to provide humanitarian aid in developing countries. The MedWish world headquarters are on East 31st Street in Cleveland, where there’s a 60,000-square-foot warehouse filled with a variety of medical supplies, ranging from wheelchairs to MRI machines.
There are three main steps in MedWish’s operation — recover, repurpose and redistribute. Dr. Ponsky said that MedWish has sent supplies to 111 countries around the world. There are various ways to get involved in MedWish, the second largest organization of its kind behind Medshare in Atlanta, Georgia.
Up to 4,000 volunteers participate in events with MedWish every year. Dr. Ponsky said that MedWish has partnered with autism schools for a skillbuilding program to allow the students to do repetitive tasks such as counting out supplies.
“It teaches them a few things. They have a job and a responsibility, and there is socialization in the work environment,” he said. “Those are important skills, even to work at a grocery store or a restaurant. They now know how to behave in a work environment. Those are major successes, and I am extremely proud of that program.”
Dr. Ponsky said that 96 percent of the MedWish volunteers do not have a medical background. Schools and businesses have come to MedWish for a field trip and people plan birthday parties and anniversary celebrations there.
“After a certain point, people are looking for something with more meaning,” Dr. Ponsky said of volunteering at MedWish.
This organization does not just send supplies overseas, it sends volunteers overseas, too. MedWish holds brigades to countries like Kenya, Honduras and the Dominican Republic to set up a clinic and see patients. Dr. Ponsky said that between 20 and 70 people have come on the brigades, most of whom are not medical personnel.
While the clinic is set up, the staff will see up to 500 patients a day. He said that this is also a humbling experience because the people in these developing countries are similar to those in the United States but without the same means.
“It gives you an opportunity to meet people in the community and visit their homes,” Dr. Ponsky said. “They’re just like you and I, but they’re born without any means. They can’t pick up Tylenol [at a local store] and they can’t take their kid to the pediatrician.”
Dr. Ponsky said that his team found a man in his 20s with cerebral palsy and his mother pushed him around in an old wheelchair. MedWish sent the man a fitted wheelchair with head support and the change was “magic.” In addition to helping people overseas, Dr. Ponsky also has plans to improve the lives of people in need right here in Cleveland.
For the last year, MedWish has worked on a pilot program to donate medical supplies locally. For example, Dr. Ponsky mentioned a young girl who needed a specialized bed, which costs tens of thousands of dollars. MedWish provided her with a bed and recently announced that their pilot program is complete, and they are now donating supplies locally.
“There is still a huge underserved population in Cleveland. It’s been reported that we have infant mortality rates in parts of Cleveland that are the same as Guatemala,” Dr. Ponsky said. “There’s still a huge amount of people with no health insurance.”
In addition, MedWish collaborated with other organizations to start an oversight organization to set quality standards for collected medical supplies. Those interested in getting involved with MedWish can call the headquarters at 216-692-1685 or email email@example.com.
“I don’t step back often and see we’re not curing cancer, but people ask if I get frustrated. We can make a difference one at a time,” Dr. Ponsky said. “If we send a heart valve for a 15-year-old girl in Honduras, we saved her life. Have I saved everyone’s life? No. But I saved her life. It’s frustrating that I can’t end all needs of healthcare, but we do it one life at a time.”