Dr. Lee Ponsky still remembers the patient who died in his arms when he was a 20-year-old University of Rochester undergrad volunteering at a Nigerian medical compound in 1991. The patient was a woman who’d been seriously injured in a fall from the bed of a moving pickup truck. The facility lacked the most basic supplies. Plastic bread bags were used as surgical gloves, fishing line for sutures. And it didn’t have the tubing needed to put her on a ventilator.
“It was just a very emotional experience as a young college student, to see a woman die,” recalls the 47-year-old Moreland Hills resident, now director of the Center for Urologic Oncology & Minimally Invasive Therapies at University Hospitals. “And then for someone to comment, ‘Well, we couldn’t connect her to a breathing machine because we didn’t have tubing.’ That, I knew, was thrown away daily in the U.S.”
Ponsky had seen other waste while working as a surgical tech at the now-closed Mount Sinai Medical Center. Two summers later, while he was waiting to start medical school at Case Western Reserve University, Ponsky presented an initiative during one of Mount Sinai’s weekly lecture-series programs to collect surplus supplies and distribute them to developing countries.
He bought some large garbage cans, stationed them in the hospital and recruited his younger brother Zac to pick up the contents each week and transport them to the garage of their parents’ Hunting Valley home. From there, MedWish International was born.
Twenty-five years later, MedWish occupies an approximately 60,000-square-foot warehouse at 1625 E. 31st St. It is filled with everything from sutures, syringes and gowns to hospital beds, even an MRI machine. Each year 11 employees and 4,000-plus volunteers ship roughly 300,000 pounds of equipment and supplies, all collected from regional health systems, to 110 developing countries. Expired disposables — rubber gloves and tongue depressors, for example — are distributed for nonmedical uses such as school art projects or sent to companies as repurposed materials. It’s all accomplished on an annual budget of just over $1 million provided by sponsorships, grants and private donations.
“We estimate that we touch 1 million lives a year,” Ponsky says.
Ponsky's cousin, chef Doug Katz, turned a 2001 opening night of his Shaker Square restaurant Fire into MedWish’s first benefit. Ponsky’s wife, Monica, has helped plan annual Band Aid Bash fundraisers as well as the medical brigades to countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua. She — along with Ponsky’s mother, Jackie; doctor father, Jeffrey; photographer sister, Kim; real-estate developer brother Zac, ENT and facial plastic surgeon sister-in-law Diana, and his three children have accompanied Ponsky on the 20- to 70-volunteer excursions, which turn rural schools into clinics that see up to 500 patients a day. And the MedWish board approved a pilot project that will distribute durable items such as hospital beds, wheelchairs and walkers through MedWorks, a nonprofit Zac founded that provides health care to the uninsured and underinsured via free clinics.
“The purpose of this organization is to take supplies that’s being thrown away and get it into the hands of people who need it,” Ponsky says. “Oftentimes, due to regulations and liability issues, it was just easier to do it internationally. But if there’s people in our own backyard we can help, then we’re very excited to be able to finally [do it].”
Ponsky hopes the initiative will attract dollars from foundations and donors looking to support causes that benefit their communities. He wants to develop the financial sustainability needed for MedWish to expand its operations, in part through the organization’s first capital campaign in its 25-year history. He envisions establishing regional distribution centers around the globe, each staffed with people who develop relationships with local clinics and hospitals to better meet their needs.
And yet, despite his lofty goals, Ponsky is amazed by MedWish's success.
“I still don’t realize it,” he says. “It always shocks me.”