“Third World Guy”

A rattly white truck, 100.5’s “Regular Guys” in the background, and Atlanta’s skyline through the windshield. Welcome to the office of James Wheeler, MedShare’s Driver.

“Driver” doesn’t exactly do his job justice, however; in fact, the people he comes in contact with on a day-to-day basis have given him a new title: “Third World.”

James Wheeler

In blue jeans, a t-shirt, and comfy tennis shoes, nothing about his appearance says “Third World.” So why the name? Because of his role: collecting surplus medical supplies bound for developing countries.

Every week or two, James visits all 32 MedShare-partnered hospitals in the Atlanta area to pick up surplus medical supplies that hospital employees collect. He’s been doing this job for four years, and the phrase that you hear him say most frequently is, “I love my job.”

Medshare Collection Barrel at Northside Hospital

In addition to getting supplies donated from manufacturers, the 32 hospitals with whom we’re partnered are where the bulk of supplies sent to developing countries come from.  Blue MedShare-labeled barrels located in different areas of the hospital serve as the collection spot for surplus medical supplies; currently there are 150 barrels in use across Atlanta.

Since MedShare only accepts unused, unexpired medical supplies, you might wonder why hospitals would give good supplies away. A variety of reasons contribute to this: due to hospital regulations, supplies must be tossed once they’ve entered the operating room (even if they were never touched), certain supplies are no longer deemed acceptable if they expire within a certain amount of time (sometimes up to a yea away), and other supplies are simply excess. These regulations certainly work in MedShare’s favor as the barrels tend to fill up quickly. James can tell you how many weeks it takes for each barrel to fill; “this one is usually up to here in a week’s time,” he says about one as he gestures to a level 3/4 of the way up.

Collection Box at Northside Hospital

Like most employees new to Medshare, I had a chance to tag along with James as he collected supplies from hospitals. It was raining as we set off for his weekly Tuesday morning route from our Decatur headquarters in James’ office (the white truck). The hospitals we visited – Northside and Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital – are located in an area so dense with hospitals and healthcare systems that James tell me it’s affectionately known as “Pill Hill”.

What other odds and ends of the system does James know? Codes to various doors, which loading docks fill up the fastest, the finickiness of elevators, which areas require you to don a “bunny suit” before being allowed entrance, where to get a good cup of coffee, the names of people, how to quickly identify expired items, and the way through the maze-like hospital corridors – a skill I found especially impressive.

MedShare's truck (aka James' office)

After four years on the job, James has a well-established system in place. Each day presents a well-planned route, and hospital staff know when to expect him. At Northside Hospital, he backs the truck up to the loading ramp and tells me that at first, he was nervous of driving this truck, “but now I’ve got it figured out.” We raise the truck door, and wheel out a blue rolling bin. After putting a few large, empty trash bags in it, we head inside. James signs in and spends a few minutes chatting with the receptionist, who “has been there for as long as I’ve been coming.” When we come out of the sign-in room, we find a box that a doctor has placed on our bin full of NICU supplies. The doctor tells James, “I saw your bin and thought you could use these.” That’s how it goes: the hospital staff know James, he knows them, and they’re more than happy to donate supplies for the “third world.”

Overflowing collection cart

We roll around to the 9 collection barrels at Northside Hospital – which is roughly the number you’ll find in most partner hospitals – and transfer the supplies to our black bags. While making the transition, James identifies and trashes expired items, then he ties the bag and tosses it in the cart. At Northside it fills up 3/4 of the way; at Scottish Rite, it’s overflowing. It varies week-to-week, but James tells me he’s more likely to have an overflowing cart than anything less.

Bed of the truck with collected supplies

We wheel back out to the truck, where James meticulously labels each bag.  The process repeats itself at Scottish Rite, except this time we don the “bunny suits” that are necessary to enter the hospital’s “core,” the area between operating rooms that boasts supplies, machinery, and bustling staff. As we’re removing the suits, a hospital employee (and by now, a friend of James) tells him that he has a few extra supplies for him; he leads the way to another room, and we collect a generous stack of boxes.

Collecting extra supplies at Scottish Rite hospital

A quick trip on I-285 and we’re back to the office. The bags will be unloaded at the end of the day, and later, volunteers will sort and re-box them to prepare for shipment overseas. Thanks in part to the generous donations of these hospitals, MedShare has shipped over 600 containers worth more than $80 million dollars to 82 countries in our 11-year history. More importantly, the supplies have been used to save thousands of lives.

For “Third World Guy,” this could easily be the end to just another work day. As I get off the truck, though, I hear the phrase again:  “I love my job.” With the generosity of hospitals and respect that abounded throughout the day, it’s easy to see why.