Elizabeth McLellan: Don’t Throw it Out!

How a visionary is moving her mission forward into the future

Photo by Jason Paige Smith.

What happens when cotton swabs, tongue depressors, and plastic syringes expire? (Believe it or not, they do.) What if a nurse doesn’t use the gauze and tape in a “start kit” for intravenous therapy because the room has its own set-up? What’s the fate of unopened supplies in a patient’s hospital room after discharge?

They all become trash.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth McLellan, a Camden-raised nurse administrator, remembered the massive waste in the US medical system when she watched a surgeon in Pakistan apply a used bandage and wipe his hands onto blood-stained scrubs. “Someday when I go home, I’m going to do something about this,” she said to herself.

And she did. In 2009, she officially launched Partners for World Health after personally collecting so many medical supplies that her home and garage were full to bursting.

Her story inspires anyone who has ever wondered, “I’m just one person—How can I make a difference?” And now, as Elizabeth continues to build the organization by drawing upon an inner circle of talented women leaders, she can clearly see how her much-lauded nonprofit will proceed resourcefully into the future.

There’s an almost holy perfection in the idea behind Partners for World Health. Like the sweet spot on a Venn diagram, it sits at the intersection of a trinity of worthy goals: cut healthcare costs, improve health globally, and reduce environmental waste. “I knew that once I moved supplies out of my house, it was going to be like an upside-down pyramid,” she says. “It would create its own sense of energy.”

As momentum did build, Elizabeth ran the Portland-based organization herself with a brigade of volunteers. Then about 4 years ago, she began hiring a core team. Although she herself continues as an unpaid volunteer—6 days a week, with Sunday to answer emails—11 staffers now keep all aspects of the organization humming. That includes 7 warehouses, 300 volunteers, and contributions from hospitals throughout New England.

PWH is now the only organization doing this type of work in the region. It’s a logistical Olympics that starts with obtaining donations of unusable medical supplies. In a hospital, for example, an item that has expired is no longer usable. Nor are supplies that have been stocked in a patient’s room or the operating room. That translates to roughly 27 pounds of waste per staffed hospital bed in America per day, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“This is happening all over the United States in every hospital, nursing home, hospice service, and private home that has medical supplies,” says Elizabeth. “If we save them from the dump, we lower the cost of healthcare. We take them away for free, and facilities don’t pay disposal fees to get rid of them.”

Instead of blighting the environment as trash in landfills, these supplies then find new viability in the 25 countries to which Partners for World Health has shipped since inception. This spring containers will be heading to Ecuador, Liberia, and Guatemala—as long as paperwork, payments, political conditions, and weather all align.

That’s a lot of balls in the air. The success of juggling such dynamic conditions improves substantially when an organization is grounded in a strong procedural foundation and a sound balance sheet. “I’m a firm believer that you have to run a nonprofit like a business,” Elizabeth states.

As every leader knows, hiring capable talent is also part of that equation. In 2017, Elizabeth and long-time board member Nancy Kaye recruited Portland native Julie Forsyth as director of operations. A Harvard history major with an MBA from Boston University, Julie has business skills that complement Elizabeth’s medical expertise. “With just as much energy and dedication to the mission,” says Elizabeth, Julie has introduced new processes, leading the admiring founder to say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

President and founder of Partners for World Health Elizabeth McLellan in the Portland warehouse. At any point, PWH warehouses contain an estimated $20 million worth of medical supplies. Photo by Jason Paige Smith.

Another personnel change at Partners for World Health just occurred in April with the appointment of Judith Parkhill to chair of the board of directors, which she joined in 2019. With a background in management consulting, she served as vice president of sales and member services at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care for 15 years.

This promotion frees the founder and president to spend more time on strategy, fundraising, and awareness-building. “Elizabeth is an extraordinarily talented and charismatic person,” says Judith, who herself is a poised and articulate spokesperson.

As a relative newcomer, how does Judith see PWH? “I think something that’s not as well known about Partners for World Health is the Medical Supply Program that provides medical supplies to people in our own region,” she says. “It is a big program.”

At significantly reduced prices, local individuals and organizations can buy supplies and durable equipment. A physician’s assistant setting up a practice in a remote area of Maine may get a discounted exam table. Medical schools tap into expired supplies to conduct simulation labs. Or the Portland Housing Authority, Avesta Housing, or the Boys and Girls Clubs may be able to use the 30 small tables, 200 mismeasured shower curtains, or 300 buckets that were donated to PWH.

“If we come across something that could be beneficial to somebody else, we want to make sure that we don’t let that opportunity pass by,” says Julie. This program also generates revenue “to help keep the lights on,” she adds.

Over 120 different social service agencies in Maine and New Hampshire now reach out to PWH for an elevated toilet seat, walker, wheelchair, or bed, as well as monitoring supplies for those with colostomy and glucose issues. In a letter to Elizabeth, one Portland social service worker projected MaineCare healthcare insurance saved $12,650 in emergency, primary care, and lab expenses over six months because, through PWH, the agency was able to provide her diabetic client with adequate testing supplies. It’s an impressive return on investment, and recalls the old saying, “Waste not, want not.”

Some items, like adult incontinence underwear, are free. Thanking PWH for a generous donation in February, Catholic Charities Maine wrote on Facebook, “These will be greatly appreciated by the seniors we serve who live on fixed incomes and often find themselves choosing between food and medicine with little leftover for anything extra.”

As part of being a good neighbor, PWH actively reached out to the community when the global coronavirus pandemic stymied supplies. “We provided back to those partners ventilators, hospital beds, masks, N-95s, whatever we had. We were making masks here and giving them to senior living facilities and group homes,” says Julie.

If COVID vaccinations proceed as planned, PWH will be able to resume medical missions in August. Elizabeth will lead a team of medical personnel to Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and South Sudan, bringing expertise as well as supplies and equipment to those in need.

Medical missions have been a core component of PWH’s identity and a passion of its founder. “When you hear Elizabeth talk about them, her face lights up. She’s so committed. She is such a humanitarian,” Judith says.

This strength is a far cry from the homesick freshman who begged her mother to pick her up from boarding school back in 1967. Many years later, though, she would be picked up—still in a preppy navy-blue blazer—by a man holding a sign displaying her name at the airport in Riyadh. In the middle of the night, she drove off into the desert to start a new job in Saudi Arabia, travel throughout the developing world, and ultimately start a mission to improve global health.

“If you walk around this place and see what’s going on, you say, ‘Wow, it couldn’t just have stayed within Elizabeth, in her head and in her heart. It’s gone way beyond that.'” – Julie Forsyth

“People-who don’t even know her-look at her, and there’s just a confidence that she’s going to find a solution,” says colleague Julie Forsyth about Elizabeth McLellan, shown here with a woman in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy Partners for World Health.

Today, as Elizabeth contemplates the many fulfilling moments of her career so far, she remembers an incident at a primary-care clinic. PWH was conducting this clinic on a Senegal beach for the women who gut fish there.

One woman in line was speaking loudly to an interpreter, gesturing toward Elizabeth, a blonde nurse in her white coat. “Something must be wrong,” Elizabeth thought. But all the woman wanted was to show her, in a log, how her blood sugars had come down after Elizabeth had warned her of the risks a year ago.

Proud and grateful, the fish lady was coming back to say thank you.


How You Can Help

Volunteering at Partners for World Health is a way that people who care about health and the environment can make a difference. Participants range from middle schoolers producing public service announcements to an 85-year-old engineer who is a whiz at calculating inventory space requirements for container shipments. College chapters help at the Portland warehouse, raise money, and develop partnerships with local hospitals. See how your special skills can contribute.

Volunteer

  • Sort, count, and pack supplies in Portland, Maine.
  • Help with pick-ups from hospitals in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
  • Conduct phone outreach from home to help build awareness with health care providers and individuals.
  • Join a sewing crew to sew sheets, toiletry bags, masks, and isolation gowns or make dresses and shorts for children at a medical mission site.
  • Show off your social media skills on events and marketing committees.
  • Join a medical mission to Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or South Sudan in 2021.

Donate

  • Contribute medical supplies and equipment. Healthcare facilities throughout New England, from hospitals to nursing homes, donate equipment (beds, exam tables, wheelchairs, ultrasound machines, defibrillators) and supplies that are expired or from opened packages. Individuals donate, too.
  • Make monetary contributions that are fully tax deductible. If it’s a special gift in honor of a birthday or anniversary, PWH can notify the recipient.

PWH adheres to all CDC guidelines to ensure safe volunteering and donation of medical supplies. People may opt to sort supplies at home.

To find out more, visit www.partnersforworldhealth.org to fill out a volunteer application or donate online.

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