I have had more trips to the emergency room in my lifetime than I do fingers on my hands, and each visit I left with more stuff than I came with. That stuff, miscellaneous medical supplies like gauze, ace bandages, and a pair of crutches, would sit and linger in my apartment until I ended up throwing them away, unable to recycle or donate back to the hospital they came from.
Then, I learned about Afya.
Afya, which means “health” in KiSwahili, is what Danielle Butin, CEO and founder, calls the “green solution to our local healthcare system.” This nonprofit serves as a sort of medical supply reuse and recycling organization. Since its inception in 2007, over 6.1 million pounds of unused healthcare supplies, collected from hospitals, individual, and community donations in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have been shipped to assist with an array of medical needs around the globe.
It seems like an obvious solution, in hindsight. But of course, it took the vision and work of one woman to get it started. We interviewed her to get inspired and learn how we can get involved, too!
Julie (Ecocult): Can you take me back to when you first dreamt of Afya and what sparked that for you?
Danielle (Afya): Well, I’m an Occupational Therapist and was working with Oxford Healthcare, which was then acquired by United Healthcare. During that time, I started taking African drumming classes and out of nowhere started collecting African art. When I ultimately left United Healthcare a year later, all I wanted to do was go to East Africa. It was a beckoning, truly. I went on a vacation to Tanzania, and while I was there I was in a tent in the Serengeti, and a physician from England was bawling her eyes out, saying, “there are no supplies here, I can’t do anything. I’m on medical mission work, I am a primary care doctor for women in London, and I’m useless here.” And I thought, oh my gosh, this is why I have been collecting African art, and this is the introduction to a bigger story. When I came back home I called Partners in Health in Boston, spoke to their Executive Director, and they told me they would teach me how to collect supplies from the NYC market, assign a team to me as support, and would help me make this a reality.
How did it take off from there?
I would literally go into the tunnels of hospitals and talk to the workers about the supplies they were upgrading and what they did with the older models. Eventually, I started calling material management directors. They facilitate the ordering and inventory of current products the hospital has and investigate what new products and supplies the hospital may need. Hospitals have medical regulations in place to ensure quality of care, proper infection control and sterility during surgery, and supplies are constantly turning over as technology and science improves to meet these standards and regulations. We are very privileged to be able to rescue these supplies and do something productive with them.
What about when new technology is crafted?
We are also incredibly fortunate to live in an area of the world where we have access to every innovation in healthcare technology imaginable, so when a dialysis machine improves by an inch, those new dialysis machines are in facilities and offering expedited care to patients immediately. Those consumables cannot be reintegrated into the American healthcare system, so we are finding a way to make lemonade out of what is being created just by the standards of care in our country.
Where around the world has Afya provided assistance?
We have shipped to 56 countries and we have been doing an amazing job, I think, partnering with African governments. We most recently have been helping with the Syrian refugees in Lesvos, Greece and camps in the north of Iraq. When refugees come across the water, many have gunshot wounds from ISIS, there are no defibrillators on the boats as they are pulling children out of the water to resuscitate them, they are in very bad medical shape and the hospitals just don’t have the capacity or the resources. One hospital, when I asked what they needed, said, “we need 14,000 pairs of gloves.”
Wow…gloves. A universal standard in an American hospital.
It’s such a travesty. What we do is take the voice of the people on the ground, very, very seriously. When they say, “this is what I need,” we are going to support the infrastructure they are asking for, because I believe if you give people the tools they need to render their trade, you can make them feel more satisfied of their choice to remain in country, and you can reduce an exodus of the medical brain power. We also want to be the place that healthcare providers and volunteers turn to when they go abroad for mission work and need supplies.
How can the everyday individual who isn’t in healthcare help Afya?
When your doctor’s office, or your dental office is renovating, or relocating, or upgrading their systems, let us know about it, anywhere in the country. We’ve received shipments from L.A., Detroit, Rhode Island, and other cities nationwide. People can also donate their own unused medical supplies or those leftover from loved ones who have passed away. We are also in constant need of capital to expand our growth and our ability to both receive and ship. If you're in New York, you come to the warehouse, in Yonkers, NY and help us sift through, “sort,” and categorize these consumable products so when we are ready to send a shipment we can pull from our inventory in a coherent manner. Sort-a-thons are great opportunities for corporations, girl scout troops, individuals, those in need of community service hours, and those of all generations to come together.
I noticed you are also now collecting sports supplies?
What we started to notice was children in African countries often go to the hospital with their one parent. They sit outside and just do nothing but pull at the dirt and wait for that parent to come out. We decided to start sending soccer supplies so these kids could play and be active. We did this in Malawi, in the most overwrought district with HIV in the nation, and it has had the biggest surge of soccer leagues after we sent this palette of soccer supplies to the hospital of any district in Malawi.
What do you envision in the future for Afya?
One of the things I take very seriously about Afya as we grow is, I would love for every hospital, medical office, dental office, etc. to know about us, and when they are renovating or closing, or integrating new products to put us on their short dial list. For example, we were able to save an enormous amount of supplies from the waste stream when two local hospitals closed, and I can’t even begin to tell you what impact that had abroad.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you started Afya?
That there are people, thousands of volunteers, hospital workers, financial donors who help us that don’t need to meet the faces that benefit from this. Just giving to them and working this tirelessly on behalf of life of another, is enough. The secret nature of just believing in life, believing in the greening impact of what these supplies can do, is enough for people over here, that preserves the dignity of people elsewhere. You don’t need to know them face to face to know that their life matters and that they have a right to healthcare.