MERCI, or Medical Equipment Recovery of Clean Inventory, is a program at the University Hospital that collects and donates clean medical supplies and gently used lab equipment at no cost to the University and other organizations.

According to MERCI, 30 to 50 percent of waste generated by hospitals is mistakenly treated as regulated medical waste, which is considered to be biohazardous and potentially infectious. A major source of this waste comes from leftovers from surgical packs — prepackaged and pre-sterilized supplies for a given type of surgery that, once opened, are often treated as harmful waste even if unused. The supplies end up incinerated, costing the hospital money and generating dangerous emissions.

In 1991, management at the University Hospital asked operating room nurse Helen French to figure out how to curb this issue of spending so much money to dispose of the medical waste. French recalled the situation to be exorbitant and not economical.

“It was just excessive,” French said. “I mean, it was excessive. They were really losing millions of dollars per year on all this.”

According to French, in actuality, approximately 85 percent of the supplies being thrown away from surgical operating rooms were not regulated medical waste.

After a few months of gathering data on the types and amounts of waste generated and meeting with physicians and researchers to determine safety and feasibility, French came up with the concept of MERCI. Through the program, clean, uncontaminated supplies from the operating room could be saved, organized and then donated to someone else.

“Why throw away anything that somebody else can use?” French said.

Every Thursday, donations are dropped off at MERCI’s location on the ground floor of the Primary Care Center at the University Hospital. Volunteers receive and sort newly-donated items, while physicians, researchers and anyone else from the community can pick up and take whatever they can use.

MERCI mostly receives surgical supplies from the operating room, but they’ve also received larger medical items like walkers and wheelchairs as well as general commodities such as baby clothes and skis. Although the majority of the donations come from the University Hospital, others have starting pouring in from the community, including neighboring hospitals like Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.

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