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Ruth Turner holds a bag of medical supplies to donate to Not Just Tourists. As she spreads the word to other colleagues at the cancer centre, bags like these are often left outside her door from groups that have begun collecting. (Photo: Not Just Tourists)

The Samburu County in central Kenya is a very remote, arid and impoverished region of the East African country.

The village of Archers Post has a small health and maternity clinic functioning with limited resources and staff.

Clinics like the one in Archers Post exist all over the world, serving the populations of multiple villages with a single doctor, a midwife and maybe a few volunteers from the community. Often these individuals are trying to provide the best care they can without access to basic medical equipment.

This is one of many stories Ruth Turner has heard as a volunteer with Not Just Tourists (NJT), a non-profit organization founded with the purpose of getting medical supplies to those who can't afford them.

"It's not uncommon for clinics to boil water to clean syringes that have already been used or to use that same method to wash medical gloves because they simply don't have a consistent supply," says Ruth, a Clinical Trials Nurse at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"Medical staff are trying to provide care for patients without any equipment to do so or having to do so in an unsterile manner, but they're doing the best they can with what they have," Ruth says. "We're providing them with something that is brand new, it's sterile, and it's clean."

How it works

Since it began 25 years ago, NJT chapters across Canada have helped deliver more than 10,000 suitcases to 82 countries.

Donations are made by hospitals, clinics, medical suppliers and individuals in the community. NJT does not take donations of medications. The supplies donated are typically gauze, bandages, surgical instruments, masks, gloves, antiseptics, IV kits, urinary supplies and birthing kits. They also take donations of old suitcases that are still in good condition to pack the supplies in.  

The supplies are packed by volunteers during weekly "packing parties" – which take place every Wednesday night for the Toronto chapter. Travelers sign up and are given the suitcases to deliver to remote clinics where they are needed.

"The reason we send the supplies we collect with travelers is we want normal people to step outside their comfort zones, visit small slums and village clinics, connect with locals and go on extraordinary journeys," says Avi D'Souza, Program Director of Not Just Tourists Toronto.

Copies of a letter signed by the NJT Director are included in a suitcase, in English, French, and Spanish depending on the destination. The traveler must unpack and repack their suitcase so they know exactly what they are taking and are able to honestly tell customs they packed their own bag.  

The letter advises customs officials in the receiving country that the traveler is transporting the supplies to a medical facility. The traveler is asked to bring back one copy of the letter, signed by a doctor or manager at the medical facility, confirming they received the supplies.

supplies into suitcases
Volunteers take part in “packing parties” to organize the supplies they’ve collected into suitcases for transport to hospitals and clinics in need. (Photo: Not Just Tourists)​

Collecting donations

Ruth has been volunteering with NJT for a decade and in that time her colleagues and other staff around the cancer centre have heard about the initiative and will leave bags and boxes outside of her office.

"These are not UHN supplies," she explains. "These are supplies sent to the clinical trials group that we can't use, or pre-packaged kits for certain procedures that have just expired that we're not allowed to use and can't return."

Drug companies often send many kits to draw samples they want for their trial. Kits contain everything necessary to draw a sample from a patient – blood tubes, bandages, and needles.

"Sometimes one tube in the whole box could expire, so the whole box would have to be thrown out," Ruth says. "Sometimes the needles used to draw the blood are not UHN approved so we can't use them, or we don't need the one they're sending us, but it's already nicely sealed and sterile."

Once Ruth and her colleagues have a few boxes worth they simply call NJT to do a pick-up.

Ruth says her experience as a volunteer helps her maintain a sense of perspective on what we take for granted.

"Through these donations often hospitals and clinics in the receiving countries are getting supplies they haven't had before and it's enabling them to better look after their patients and potentially look after more," she says. "We throw things out so easily and someone else could really use it."

Ruth adds that caregivers often come to the cancer centre trying to return unopened medical supplies they no longer need after caring for a sick family member at home. For safety and quality assurance purposes, hospitals are not able to take back medical supplies even if they are unopened. Looking into the possibility of donating them to organizations like NJT is a great alternative, Ruth says.   

 "We just take so for granted what we get here," she says. "You can see a doctor whenever you need to, get a prescription, or get an X-ray done. They just don't have that ability."

"So to be able to donate just a small part of what they might need is really gratifying."

For more information on how to make a donation or become a volunteer, visit the NJT Toronto website.

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