For years, the team behind Memphis Mission of Mercy has been gathering medical supplies of all shapes and sizes to help supplement resources at medical centers in the Philippines, provide supplies for medical mission trips and, eventually, build a new hospital in the country.
But with the hospital construction delayed due to COVID-19 and a war raging in Ukraine, the nonprofit’s board made a decision earlier this year: Many of the supplies originally intended for the future hospital in the Philippines would be sent to Ukraine instead.
It became clear to the board early this year the organization was still not going to be able to send medical professionals to the Philippines due to the pandemic (they did send supplies). But they had a mindset that they needed to help those they could help, said Dr. Nia Zalamea, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine whose parents, Norma and Renato Zalamea, founded Memphis Mission of Mercy in 1999.
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“When the Ukraine war started, we discussed it as a board and we felt incredibly helpless,” she said. "That feeling of helplessness very quickly transitioned into, ‘What can we do if we can't physically be there?’”
The supplies were packed into containers last weekend and left Memphis on Monday. The materials will travel by rail to the coast and then will be loaded onto a cargo ship. It’s estimated the supplies will arrive in Ukraine in four to six weeks, Zalamea said.
It wasn’t easy to make the decision to redirect the supplies after years of work, Zalamea said. But she said she was proud of the board for the choice.
“If it can be lifesaving today, then we should go for it,” she said, describing the conversation had at a board meeting in March.
Earlier in the year, the group also sent smaller batches of supplies to Ukraine via plane — including an anesthesia machine after they heard a shortage meant some hospitals were having to operate on patients without anesthesia. However, the almost 20 tons of supplies shipped this week weren’t able to be sent via plane due to space and cost constraints.
While Memphis Mission of Mercy is well versed in getting medical supplies to the Philippines, the logistics involved in getting materials to Ukraine was a different story. They had been planning to ship the supplies for months, but the supply chain and logistics issues that have plagued all industries impacted their timeline.
“At that time… my dad and I were contacting a million different people to see how we could get stuff to Ukraine,” Zalamea said. "We had no idea."
After the decision was made, it took a chain of connections through individual surgeons, medical groups and international nonprofits to figure out how to get the hospital beds, stretchers, tourniquets, materials to treat burns and battle gauze into the country.
Eventually, Zalamea was connected with Nova Ukraine, which has helped ship the supplies to the country and will aid in distributing the supplies to medical centers, largely in the south and east of the country, based on need. The charity has established a nationwide database where hospitals in Ukraine can submit a list of needed equipment. Nova Ukraine can then match donations with the centers that need them.
“Much of what we do is just trying to figure out how to do a lot with a little and we found ourselves in a situation we actually had a lot,” Zalamea said. “It just needed to be relocated.”
Every step of the way since Memphis Mission of Mercy decided to send supplies to Ukraine, Zalamea has seen people step up. Hospital systems across the metro area have donated supplies of all sorts.
Due to changing contracts with suppliers and regulations on how long hospitals can use certain supplies — like beds and surgical tables — or have emergency supplies in reserve, local hospitals have been able to donate a bevy of medical materials. But most of those supplies, even if organizations are required to get rid of them, are still functional and safe, Zalamea said.
“Those kind of older school beds are really built for resilience. And they're dinosaurs. They still survive. And same thing with our (surgical) tables. Yes, we have these fancy electronic things right now. But every one of them has a manual backup for safety,” she said. “That's all we're used to in mission work, manual, because no one wants to rely on power because the power goes out.”
Donations like that had been directed to the charity long before the pandemic began. She said donations have poured in over time as the medical community learned that Memphis Mission of Mercy would gladly take functional supplies that hospitals had to let go of.
Zalamea, a general surgeon who is also director of the UTHSC Global Surgery Institute and associate director of the UTHSC Center for Multicultural and Global Health, has also seen colleagues from the UT system step up to donate a variety of supplies.
She complimented the surgeons in Los Angeles who helped her connect with Nova Ukraine and the movers who packed up all the supplies, making sure no space was wasted and all the supplies were packed in a way they would make it thousands of miles without damage.
Even the Domino’s delivery driver who brought pizza to the movers over the weekend was excited when he realized what the team was doing, Zalamea said.
More to come
This isn’t the end, she said. The group plans to ship even more supplies to Ukraine, while still focusing on the mission of providing supplies and a new hospital in the Philippines.
Memphis Mission of Mercy still plans to open a hospital in the Philippines. Engineering plans had been completed in February 2020, but no construction work had begun.
“The dream’s not gone. It's just timing-wise, it has changed,” Zalamea said.
She joked that over time she and her father had become “professional beggars” as they looked for donated medical supplies to ship to the Philippines or bring on annual medical missions.
“We still have a lot of supply that we can offer. So in no way is this hurting the long-term mission and in any way,” she said. “We would much rather see our goods, no matter how hard or how long it took to get them, we would much rather see them in use than stuck in a warehouse for storage.”
Corinne S Kennedy covers healthcare and economic development for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com
How to help
Those interested in helping provide medical supplies can donate to Memphis Mission of Mercy online at memphismission.org or by mailing a check to Memphis Mission of Mercy, 11982 Rosebrook Lane, Arlington, TN 38002. Any donations specified for Ukraine will go directly to providing supplies to the country. The group is also looking for volunteers for an upcoming medical mission trip to the Philippines.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis charity sends medical supplies to Ukraine as war rages on