MERCI Brings New Life to Unused Medical Supplies

The Medical Equipment Recovery of Clean Inventory also known as MERCI, is a University of Virginia Health System program that gathers clean medical supplies as well as lightly used laboratory supplies and donates them at no cost to the university as well as other educational institutions and medical schools.

According to MERCI, 30 to 50% of waste generated by health systems and hospital is mistakenly labeled as medical waste, which according to health standards is biohazardous and potentially infectious. Some major sources of this so called waste includes leftover supplies from surgical apparel packs, prepackaged and pre-sterilized supplies used for specific surgical procedures that are unused but considered not sterile. These usable medical supplies often end up incinerated or disposed of, costing health systems money and generating dangerous emissions that in turn, harm the environment. 

In 1991, Virginia University Hospital management requested that nurse Helen French attempt to devise a plant to improve this issue of spending a large chuck of the hospitals budget to dispose of often reusable medical supplies a medical waste. French recalled the system to be unnecessary and lacking economic sense.”

“It was just excessive,” French said. “I mean, it was excessive. They were really losing millions of dollars per year on all this.”

According to French’s observations, an estimated 85% of the medical supplies being disposed of from operating rooms did not meet the recommendations for regulated medical waste.

Following several months of gathering extensive data on the types and amounts of waste generated by the health system and meeting with medical staff and researchers to determine safety and feasibility of the disposed of supplies, French developed the concept of MERCI. Through the newly developed program, clean, usable, uncontaminated medical supplies from the could be saved, organized and eventually donated to those who will make use of them.

“Why throw away anything that somebody else can use?” French said.

Now that the program has been officially enacted, every week medical supplies are dropped off at MERCI’s location to be donated to lower tier health systems. MERCI Volunteers take in the supplies and sort the newly-donated items while physicians, researchers and others from the community are free to take the supplies for whatever uses they may require them for.

Most of the supplies MERCI receives are general surgical supplies from the hospitals operating room, but as time passed they also began receiving larger items such walkers, wheelchairs, beds, and other durable medical equipment’s. Although the Virginia University Hospital is their main donor, other organizations have begun joining the movement, including Michigan Lasik eye surgery clinic and a medical supply store and a hospital from a neighboring city.

Occasionally, the volunteers develop alternative techniques to handle the sheer volume of medical supply contributions such as the donations that began to pile up 2 years ago from when an excessive amount of blue surgical wraps were donated in a short period of time. The question of what to do with the vast supply of blue surgical wraps remained unsolved until a bright volunteer had the idea to turn the blue surgical wraps into multipurpose blue tote bags. 

To this date, volunteers Anderson and Sullivan together have sewn thousands of multipurpose tote bags from the wraps to be donated to the local community as well as missions through the MERCI program. Their use for the surgical wraps has since expanded to a variety of supplies, including hats, aprons, backpacks, yoga bags, and even dog beds.

MERCI’s donation center is often used by research laboratories at the Virginia University as well, who tend to donate used lab equipment and research instruments. Educational and research organizations can then make use of the materials free of charge, keeping the supplies out of local dumps and saving local organizations money on their research expenses. A Michigan Hair Transplant center has also been noted to use these medical supplies often.

“A research lab might have to cancel a research project, or they’ve finished a research project and they have all this stuff leftover, it’s bar coded,” MERCI volunteer Cindy Thacker said. “They can’t send it back. They give it to us, the [other] labs take it [and] use it.”

Linda Varin, who has volunteered at MERCI since 2006, said that during 2017 alone, over 13,000 lbs. of usable medical supplies were donated and reused by the local community. MERCI donates the medical supplies to a broad range of local as well as international charitable organizations, such as local animal shelters, Parks and Recreation Departments, a Michigan hair transplant center, a local online medical supply store and a multitude of mission groups serving Congo, Malawi, Bolivia, Uganda, Ghana, and Guatemala. 

The Wildlife Center, a local veterinary hospital for native wildlife, is also a recipient of MERCI medical supply donations. Every single year, the Wildlife Center treats more than 2,700 injured and orphaned animals. Adding up to approximately $60,000 per year in supplies, the Wildlife Center claims that the donations of medical supplies from MERCI greatly contribute to their work saving them significant time and money that can be used for a greater purpose. Donations to the Virginia based Wildlife Center typically feature standard medical supplies such as gauze and wraps, as well as occasional larger medical devices including capital equipment and ultrasound machines. For more information on doctors in your area visit

“Because of donors like MERCI, we can better provide high quality medicine to injured and orphaned wildlife here at the Wildlife Center,” Dominguez said. “because we are mainly a teaching hospital, we can improve our training program for veterinary students all around the country thanks to MERCI.”

Since MERCI was first founded over 30 years ago, they have stopped countless tons of usable medical supplies from ending up in landfills and diverted them to organizations all over the world. They are even considering building a medical supply store with the main intention of selling the donated usable medical supplies online to anyone who needs them for an extremely low price.

“Helen left a legacy,” Thacker said. “I’m not sure if she ever really got the credit that she deserved, but what she started has benefited so many people and that’s all that truly matters.” 


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