Andover nonprofit’s free medical gear helps women, babies survive

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NORTH ANDOVER – As it sought to supply less-developed countries with refurbished American hospital gear, International Medical Equipment Collaborative determined that it was delivering something more significant, by enhancing the well-being of women and children.

Twenty years ago, Tom Keefe left a career in hospital administration to turn his talents toward helping people in parts of the world that lack many basics taken for granted by most Americans, such as modern health-care facilities. Now he says the work of the organization he founded, known as IMEC, especially helps women and their children survive the rigors of living in less-advanced countries.

Women are often the people who keep vital services going in farming communities, for instance, and often run local hospitals and keep the schools open, Keefe said in a recent interview. Providing proper tools to improve productivity allows women “to become more economically valuable to the community” in cultures where violence is often perpetrated against them.

“The more tools we can give them, the more that contribution rises,” he said. The organization delivers equipment for use in health care, education and agriculture.

The nonprofit collaborative doesn’t benefit financially from impoverished nations as it serves communities in more than 90 countries from the Caribbean to Africa. The 20 IMEC employees depend heavily on 4,500 volunteers annually to receive, repair, rehabilitate, modify, package and distribute the equipment it obtains from donations made by service providers and manufacturers.

A 175,000 square-foot warehouse and workshop in North Andover, about 30 miles north of Boston, is divided into the three sectors – equipment and provisions for hospitals, schools and farms. As the collaborative works with groups to learn their needs, Keefe said that the greatest demand is for equipment to fit out maternity wards, including for prenatal care and systems to help infants through their first 28 days of life.

“Why it is we don’t know,” Keefe said. He pointed to high infant mortality rates in developing nations, which reach around 10 percent or higher in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan. By comparison, the U.S. rate is less than 1 percent.

Childbirth leads more families in developing nations to seek services than anything else, Keefe said.

“All healthcare comes down to the person asking for it, and in these countries we work with, I think they celebrate life and their heart breaks when they lose a child,” he said.

The equipment IMEC provides can outfit an entire maternity ward, including a newborn nursery with critical care systems, such as resuscitation apparatus and other vital tools. The gear the organization delivers also can equip a pharmacy, a surgery, a delivery room, an exam room, and includes beds and wheelchairs.

For schools, the collaborative might provide desks for teachers and students, chalkboards, gym equipment and even a world map.

Before being sent out, the equipment is repaired if necessary, cleaned and refurbished. Often it is also refitted to operate with different electrical systems found in other countries, where standard voltages and other aspects of the local infrastructure may not be the same as those used in the U.S. IMEC representatives sometimes travel to a recipient community to help install the machinery and train local workers in how to operate it.

The collaborative is continuously expanding, including adding development of its own equipment designs. Currently, much of that work focuses on developing a prototype infant incubator and a digital learning center to provide advanced medical training.

Too often, well-intended but inexperienced organizations send used equipment to hospitals in these nations where it can’t be put to work because it hasn’t been adapted to conditions there, Keefe said. At the collaborative, the work they do to make things useful and deliver the items to communities in need can take anywhere from four weeks to two years.

“This is not about doing good,” he said. “It’s about doing good work.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.