Pay It Forward: OR nurses create HERO to serve community
By Matthew N. Skoufalos
“There’s about 40 MSROs in the United States that do similar work,” said Anne Virginia Lindstrom, “however, we are one of the only ones that has a local distribution that keeps supplies here as well.”
Lindstrom is the communications director for HERO, the Healthcare Equipment Recycling Organization, that is based in Fargo, N.D. An MSRO is a medical supply recovery organization — a nonprofit entity devoted to the repurposing and redistribution of medical equipment that otherwise would end up in a landfill — and although HERO distributes its inventory to places like Liberia and Haiti, “we have that unique point of staying here,” Lindstrom said.
The agency was founded in 1996 by a group of operating room nurses who “saw amazing amounts of waste that would lead to hospitals scrapping sterile supplies,” Lindstrom said.
“If the bag is opened and only one thing is taken out, even though everything else is sterile and still sealed, it’s all thrown away,” she said. “It started with stuff like that, gauze pads, bandages, and has grown to the point that we’re accepting hospital beds.”
The HERO founders who began storing their supplies in a small garage 20 years ago now operate a 7,000-square-foot facility with a loading bay, office space, and diagnostic and maintenance area. That’s not counting the 300- to 400-square-foot showroom with point-of-sale system, which helps turn over the 300 pallets worth of inventory the warehouse can store “multiple times in a year,” Lindstrom said.
“We have everything from gauze pads to hospital beds, but the primary DMEs we have are walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, and canes,” she said.
Some items are headed to senior homes — incontinence supplies, risers, toilet chairs, to name a few — and still others head for other intra-community agencies, finding second lives in the homes of the disabled or those ailing from any number of issues, from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s to epilepsy.
“Everything that comes into our store is tested and sanitized so that we know it’s in good working condition before it’s sent back out,” Lindstrom said. “We have a wide variety of supplies that comes through our doors. Some are damaged so we use them for parts.”
Although everything in the HERO store is offered at around a 25 percent discount from retail prices, Lindstrom said, any customer who is unable to pay the handling fees is still treated with compassion.
“We never turn anyone away,” she said. “We have people that are probably below the poverty level and then we’ll have some people who come in who are absolutely financially secure, and it’s a complete array.”
In the Fargo-Moorhead region of North Dakota, where HERO is located, Lindstrom said, the distributed population of what is essentially farmland also needs a lower-cost alternative to the typical healthcare resources available to them, which may be either prohibitively expensive or too remotely located.
“We do have the same downtown-suburbia feel that you would find in some parts of New York or the Twin Cities,” she said, “but as you start getting out into those agricultural communities with their fourth- and fifth-generation farmers, they view Fargo as the big city.”
To reach that group of people, HERO has added a cube truck to its arsenal, which, in addition to the storefront at its Fargo facility, helps “get the message out so that people know we’re here to help them, and they can get a specialized piece of equipment if they need it,” Lindstrom said.
Lindstrom also points to a number of individuals whom she remembers specifically as having been helped by HERO. Among them was an amputee who went directly from his hospital discharge to the facility to pick up a specialized walker and wheelchair.
“He only had $20 in his pocket to get to HERO, to the supplies that he needed, and home,” Lindstrom said. “We waived the cost.”
Seventeen-year-old Hannah’s mother has come in throughout the years “to get supplies that she would never be able to afford were it not for HERO,” Lindstrom said.
“A specialized wheelchair, a sit-to-stand device, special toothbrushes; all those kinds of things that make life easier for this girl because we’re here,” she said.
Another young boy, Trevon, suffered a brain injury when he was in “a horrific car crash” at age five, Lindstrom said, “and because of that, lost a lot of control of his limbs.”
“He is now a special-needs child,” she said. “The hope is that as he gets older and a little bit stronger, he’ll be able to recover the use of his legs and stand on his own.”
“It is really nice to see where the stuff is going,” she said. “To see people come in who are in such need of equipment and supplies, to put a smile on their face, you feel like you made their day, and sometimes you made their life.”
In addition to reaching people in need, HERO is also fulfilling the second aspect of its mission: to divert tonnage from the dump. In 2013, Lindstrom said, the organization saved more than 150,000 pounds of medical supplies from area landfills.
“If we had the ability to expand, even to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; L.A., Dallas; it’s so much more populated there, that our impact would be more substantial,” she said.
It’s not inconceivable, either. In the past three or four years, “We grew about 30-40 percent,” Lindstrom said, “and I think it’s organic growth because people are becoming aware of us.”
One way to help accelerate the reach of the organization is to support its efforts. HERO hosts its largest single fundraiser on February 12, a day during which individual donations of as much as $4,000 will be matched, Lindstrom said.
“We encourage people, if they’re thinking of giving, that they donate on our website that day,” she said.