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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo


Why I serve: Bringing healthcare to the world

Mary Tuttle at Global Links’ warehouse
Mary Tuttle at Global Links’ warehouse

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You’ve probably seen that bumper sticker:  Think Globally, Act Locally.  But is there a way to actually do that – to think globally and act locally when you live in Pittsburgh?
What if you heard that right here in Pittsburgh there is a non-profit organization – called Global Links – that solves three big global and local problems at the same time?  Specifically:
  • What to do with all the surplus medical supplies and equipment thrown out every day by US hospitals?
  • How to keep tons of stuff out of Pennsylvania landfills?
  • How to get medical supplies to doctors and nurses in the developing world who really need them?
If you’re like me, you’d want to help that organization in any way you could. 
I first volunteered at Global Links in 2004 on a whim, joining a friend who already volunteered with her fellow Peace Corps alumni. The work – checking expiration dates on supplies (I’ve forgotten now exactly what the item was, it could have been anything from Foley catheters to gauze pads), then packing them in boxes for the next shipping container going to, say, Nicaragua – was interesting and satisfying.  We were led by enthusiastic young Global Links staffers, who themselves had started as volunteers. I found myself eager to return to Global Links, so I started going there on my own one morning a week, and eventually added a second morning.
At Global Links, I have had the privilege of working with like-minded people of all colors, beliefs and social strata.  Many volunteers come with groups from churches, synagogues, schools, clubs, companies or groups of friends or students.  Many are retired. Many come to volunteer individually – and the staff are great at scheduling volunteers of similar ages and interests to work together. Together, in a spirit of brother- and sisterhood that overcomes distinctions and divisions between neighbors, we do the sorting, cleaning and packing of life-saving instruments and equipment that our city is wealthy enough to discard. It sounds crazy, but given the interesting people drawn to volunteering at Global Links, the work is fun!
I know I’m helping people in the developing world in a very real way, with supplies going directly to specific small hospitals and clinics that are visited by Global Links staffers, who make sure a clinic gets exactly what it wants and needs. I also love keeping tons of trash out of local landfills – where all these surplus supplies were going until Global Links founder and CEO Kathleen Hower and two fellow nurses thought of the ingenious idea of Global Links in 1999.
You may be wondering why US hospitals have to throw out so much good stuff, or why it can’t be donated to hospitals in this country.  The short answer can be found within our complicated U.S. health-care system, where it meets our legal system.  Apparently, when a hospital changes a vendor for a specific type of supply, all the old vendor’s materials must be thrown out. 
Or when nurses lay out sutures for an operation, they take off the package’s outer wrapping. It still has an inner wrapping and is sterile.  But if it’s not used by the surgeon, all packages are thrown out after the operation. That suture is perfectly good and sterile and can save lives in other countries. 
Or sometimes a hospital builds a new building with all new stuff, or responds to new government regulations, and suddenly Global Links gets a windfall of something crucial like IV poles, or even hospital beds.  
I have met so many wonderful people volunteering there, and have made lasting friendships with other volunteers.  I’ve gotten so much more than I’ve given from my almost-decade of volunteering at Global Links. Their small staff, whose mission is to have volunteers do the majority of the hands-on sorting and packing, is made up of amazing people. And every year there are two young workers from Americorps – enthusiastic, smart, selfless young people. I’ve learned how much generosity, love, respect and decency exist among fellow Pittsburghers. I’ve worked with great people whom I might never have been lucky enough to know. 
A strong, rich and enlightened family has grown from these disparate volunteers, and we have developed deep and lasting bonds of friendship and mutual support. More importantly, we know that we live in the richest nation on earth, and that we can do so much good for other world citizens who don’t have our good luck and good circumstances.   
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