Trash talk inspires students at conference

It is said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For Dr. Lee Ponsky, that axiom has been applied with great success to medical supplies and equipment.

Dr. Ponsky, the founder of MedWish, was the Feb. 9 keynote speaker during the First Annual Global Health Student Conference at UT Southwestern Medical Center. MedWish, established in 1993 while Dr. Ponsky was still a college student, now is one of the nation’s top medical supply recovery organizations. In 2012 alone, MedWish shipped more than 800,000 pounds of materials – from sutures to rubber gloves to outdated (by U.S. standards) X-ray machines – to medical facilities in developing countries.

“I found a need, and I filled it,” said Dr. Ponsky, a urologist in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. “If you see a way, do it. You can ask questions and end up hamstrung by all the reasons not to do it.”

Dr. Ponsky first saw the need personally in the summer of 1991 while working as a World Health Organization volunteer in Nigeria. The son of a physician, he soon had nurses at local hospitals and clinics collecting extra materials not used during examinations and procedures. For years, the effort remained enthusiastic, but limited.

“It’s not well-known, but more than $200 million in clean, unused medical supplies are thrown out each year in America,” he said. “We’d gather them up and ship them to where the need was.”

The organization’s tipping point, Dr. Ponsky said, occurred in 2010 when Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. With the help of local television stations, MedWish used its warehoused cache of ready supplies, along with donations from the public, and filled a 40-foot shipping container within 48 hours. In all, more than 300,000 pounds of materials – from water, to blankets, to medical supplies – made their way to the crippled country.

MedWish also is providing measured relief in the Philippines, hit by a hurricane late in 2013.

“You can’t just empty your warehouse,” he said. “You have to understand that the first response should be search and rescue. In our case, we also always want to have a partner on the ground.

“We’re still sending materials to Haiti. We’ll be sending to the Philippines for years while they’re rebuilding.”

Student presentations at the conference, coordinated with the Office of Global Health, addressed water contamination issues in India; emerging contraceptive choices in China; urban farming methods for better nutrition; PneuMom: a device for preventing fetal head impaction; a sexual-health education program for teenagers in Peru; and using sunglasses to prevent pterygium, a benign growth on the inside of the eyelid.

Lukmon Babajide, a first-year medical student, said it was stimulating to see the connection between textbook instruction and real-world health care application.

“In class, we’re learning medicine, but the lectures don’t address the social aspect of medicine,” he said. “This is really beneficial. It’s more integrative, and you can see how what we’re learning can affect health across the globe.”

Second-year medical student Ramu Kharel, one of the organizers of the conference, said the presentations were meant to point out and celebrate the diverse perspectives and experiences students can have when operating in a group dynamic.

“If we grow up and we never go outside our bubble, we can end up with a single mindset,” he said. “This kind of conference provides food for discussion.”