On the season premiere episode of Kentucky Health, host Dr. Wayne Tuckson welcomes Denise Sears, MHA, president and CEO of Supplies Over Seas International (SOS). Sears discusses the Louisville-based nonprofit’s mission to locate and collect surplus medical supplies and then distribute them to countries and communities in need.
A Medical Lifeline Emphasizing Collaboration and Efficiency
Medications, medical supplies, and even some types of medical equipment have expiration dates, just as foodstuffs do. Supplies Over Seas was formed in 1993 by the late surgeon and former president of the Louisville Medical Society Dr. Norton Waterman to collect unused medical items in the dwindling time before those dates occur and then find places where those goods can be used. It’s a research-intensive process that requires significant collaboration, Sears says.
“We work with over 100 hospitals and health care organizations across six different states, with a seventh coming online soon,” she explains. “These are supplies and pieces of equipment that the hospital no longer needs, and there are many reasons that drive that surplus – from change in vendors, to a surgical tray having one expired item on it that we can pull and then save everything else, or they’re replacing capital equipment, upgrading it.”
Once surplus items are identified, they are brought to SOS headquarters in Louisville, categorized, and sorted by date. Sears says biomedical equipment is tested by volunteer biomed engineers.
“We won’t send anything unless we know it is in working order,” she says.
Certain criteria must be met regarding the supplies’ expiration dates. If a product is going to be sent to an international destination, such as a hospital or clinic in a developing country, Sears says it must have at least 15 months left on its usage to account for packing, shipping, and possible transit delays.
“If [the expiration window] is less than that, it may go on a medical mission trip, or it’s going to stay local,” Sears says. “And if it’s expired, then it will go to schools for teaching.”
In her travels abroad, Sears has seen the desperate need for what many in the U.S. would consider basic medical equipment. She describes hospitals in Africa that were without bedside poles for hanging IV (intravenous fluid) bags.
“I’ve been to clinics that are basically two rooms, mud walls, and that is the only clinic within a 50-mile radius,” she says.
For places like that, the equipment provided by SOS is absolutely essential, and Sears says what makes their distribution model even more successful is how thoroughly SOS researches the receiving hospital or clinic many time zones away to make sure the donated equipment or supplies will be optimally used. For example, Sears says that SOS obtained a CT scan machine from a donor hospital in the U.S. and sent it to a hospital in Africa that was based in an urban area that had reliable public utilities and a General Electric office nearby to make sure it was properly reconnected after it arrived.
“We don’t take any pride in being able to tell how much (supplies) we sent, and it’s a lot,” Sears says. “What we want to talk about is how many lives we impacted positively.”
SOS is one of only seven companies providing medical supplies that is accredited nationally, Sears says, which means it must meet the highest principles of ethical, responsible, and responsive medical donations. The work has benefits that extend far beyond health care; Sears says that SOS has diverted roughly 5 million pounds of medical surplus from local landfills through the years.
Sears maintains that SOS’s success wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of their small but hardworking staff, partner organizations such as Louisville-based transportation company United Parcel Service, and last but not least, volunteers.
“The lifeline of our SOS mission are our volunteers,” Sears says. “We get over 3,000 volunteers every year – from school groups, to church groups, to corporate groups, to individuals.”
Expanding SOS’s Mission to Serve Kentuckians
In its early years, SOS strictly focused on providing international aid, Sears says, but the organization began serving its hometown and home state when she joined six years ago after working with Neighborhood House, a nonprofit serving West Louisville.
“I had a passion for our underserved communities here at home equal to the underserved communities in other parts of the world, and I also felt that if we really wanted to call ourselves a global health organization, then global includes local,” she says.
SOS’s expanded model was soon operational in Louisville and other areas. It’s been especially helpful over the past three years, as first a global pandemic and then natural disasters affected the commonwealth.
“When COVID hit, SOS played a very significant role in our local community, because even our hospitals could not get the PPE they needed due to supply chain shortages,” Sears says.
The repository at SOS was a godsend during the subsequent months, with equipment going not only to area hospitals and clinics but also to the Louisville Metro Police Department and nursing homes.
Now, with many supply chains back at full strength, Sears says SOS is receiving constant inquiries about donating PPE and other supplies related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On occasions when SOS is not in need of a particular item, they will refer the donor elsewhere. For example, they put a donor with gloves and masks in touch with a school district that is enforcing a mask mandate due to high COVID transmission rates.
Hospitals and clinics in both western and eastern Kentucky reached out to SOS after severe weather devastated those areas. Folks in western Kentucky received wheelchairs and walkers to replace ones blown away by the December 2021 tornadoes, and Sears says that SOS organized shipments to hospitals in eastern Kentucky one day after they were impacted by floods in July. Since SOS supplies arrive to a disaster area having already been inventoried and verified for safe usage, they are able to be distributed more quickly, she explains.
Medical supplies and equipment unable to be used in treating patients can still be valuable in an educational setting, Sears says. SOS works with Allied Health to distribute expired products to various community and technical colleges throughout Kentucky as well as to Jefferson County Public Schools, where they are used to train the next generation of physicians, nurses, and staff.
“It’s rare to find a county that SOS supplies have not gone to, for use at some sort of training facility,” she notes. “It’s a model that we’re very passionate about, and when we can work with a partner, both here and internationally, sending supplies to a hospital that we know is also training, then that’s a wonderful thing to do.”
To inquire about donating supplies or volunteering, Sears recommends visiting SOS’s website or calling (502) 736-6360.