The Portlander Who Rescues What Hospitals Throw Out

Partners for World Health founder Elizabeth McLellan saw a medical need and filled it with rummage.

Elizabeth McLellan
By Edgar Allen Beem | Photographed by Brian Fitzgerald

Growing up in Camden, one of five children of a local doctor and nurse, Elizabeth McLellan took it seriously when her father, saying grace, bid her and her siblings to “be ever-mindful of the needs and wants of others.” It’s one reason she became a nurse and the main reason she founded Partners for World Health, the only organization in New England that recycles unused medical supplies that might otherwise end up in the dump.

McLellan started realizing the need to share America’s medical wealth in the ’90s, when she was living in the Middle East and managing nursing care for a large oil company. Watching a Pakistani surgeon examine wounded patients without gloves and reuse dirty bandages, she wondered why there wasn’t some means of sending surplus medical supplies abroad.

Following the arrival of coronavirus in the U.S., Partners for World Health did something of an about-face, returning some of its donated beds and ventilators to New England hospitals.

Then, in the ’00s, as a nursing administrator at Maine Medical Center, McLellan saw an incredible volume of supplies going into the trash after being left in the rooms of discharged patients. She started asking permission to collect useful items. By the time she founded Partners for World Health, in 2009, her home was overflowing with gloves, masks, gowns, diapers, tape, bandages — some 11,000 pounds of rescued medical supplies.

In just over a decade, what began as a personal project at a single hospital has grown into a regional nonprofit with 800 volunteers, a staff of 10, a box truck, a van, and warehouses in Portland, Bangor, and Presque Isle, plus in Vermont and Massachusetts. Every month, Partners for World Health ships two containers of supplies to places in need: Uganda, Bangladesh, Senegal, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Malawi, Liberia, Togo. The boxes are each valued between $200,000 and $250,000 and filled with 18,000 to 21,000 pounds of medical supplies such as IV pumps, EKG machines, beds, ventilators, and more, collected from more than 200 hospitals, nursing homes, and medical offices.

This year, following the arrival of the coronavirus in the U.S., Partners for World Health did something of an about-face, returning some of its donated beds and ventilators to New England hospitals and helping fill the domestic need for personal protective equipment. “When PPE has expiration dates, hospitals don’t want to use it,” McLellan says. “We were getting all the expired stuff — but when you run out of masks, an expired mask looks pretty good.” 

In addition to donating expired masks to area hospitals, Partners for World Health sent 85,000 N95 face masks to China early in the pandemic, then set its volunteers to work sewing thousands more masks for Maine hospitals. Volunteers range from ninth-graders to nonagenarians. “I talk to a lot of high-school and college students,” McLellan says. “I tell them to find something bigger than yourself to commit to. If you work at it, it will grow.”

McLellan is herself a full-time volunteer, not only the organization’s unpaid president but also a regular fixture at transfer stations in Cape Elizabeth and Camden, where she scoops up secondhand crutches and wheelchairs.

“We’re one step from the dump,” McLellan says. “We save medical supplies from the landfill, lower health-care costs by saving on trash budgets, and do the right thing by serving people in need.”

Read more about the Mainers we saluted in our November 2020 Giving Back Issue, all doing their part to make the Pine Tree state a better place.

Plus, five nonprofit organizations making a big impact. [Sponsored]