By ANDREA C. TURNER
MedWish International, the Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that repurposes surplus medical supplies and equipment to provide humanitarian aid to people in need, celebrates its 30th year in 2023.
Medwish’s Founder and President, Dr. Lee Ponsky, recently reflected on the early years when the organization got its start.
As a high school student, Ponsky volunteered at Cleveland’s now defunct Mount Sinai Hospital. “All my friends were getting cool jobs – lifeguarding, or hanging out outside. And I was working as a scrub nurse in the operating room, passing the instruments to the doctors. And I loved it … It was a gift to me,” said Ponsky.
He then sought out opportunities to use those skills as a volunteer during college. In the summer of 1991, he volunteered at a medical clinic in Ogbomosho, Nigeria.
Days there started with the medical team washing out the rubber gloves from the day before. “We would fill them with water. And if there was no water dripping from the fingertips, they were good,” he explained. They would make their own gauze or use bread bags to examine patients and use fishing line as suture.
It was there he witnessed first-hand the obvious lack of medical supplies in developing countries. He recalled a woman dying tragically simply because the clinic did not have a proper breathing tube she needed to survive.
Prior to starting medical school in 1993, Ponsky was determined to help resolve this need, and MedWish was born in an effort to repurpose medical surplus that would otherwise be discarded.
MedWish began internationally, then eventually launched its local and domestic giving program in 2018, helping save millions of lives across the world and in our own backyard.
Now one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country, MedWish celebrates its accomplishments – almost 6 million pounds of supplies have reached 115 countries including the U.S. since 1993. Supplies include wheelchairs, MRI machines, boxes of gauze, operating room lights, examination gloves, microscopes, Neosporin, and everything in between. MedWish has sent significant supplies to Ukraine during the ongoing conflict with Russia, and efforts are underway to help those affected by the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey.
“Thirty years feels like quite a milestone, considering I had some passion and idealism, and a lot of naïveté at an early age to create this concept,” said Ponsky, now Chair of the Department of Urology at University Hospitals.
He credits the philanthropic community of Northeast Ohio for supporting the organization and its mission, “I’m very proud of the community we live in and the way our mission has been embraced, both by volunteers, donors, and partner healthcare organizations. It’s much bigger than what I ever expected.”
“At the end of the day, I’m most proud of the number of people’s lives we’ve been able to either dramatically improve or save with medical treatment because of our efforts,” he added. “We always like to reach as many people in need as possible, so the enormity of that is very rewarding. I also joke that MedWish is my fourth and oldest child,” he added. He and his wife are parents to three children.
From that first “warehouse” in Ponsky’s parents’ garage to where MedWish is today – 16 staff members and thousands of volunteers — they are planning ahead to make an even greater impact in the years to come to save lives and the environment.
Future goals include partnerships to help specific communities in need establish solid infrastructure to become more medically self-sustainable. To expand their footprint, they are looking into creating distribution centers in parts of the world for more efficient and quicker ease of transporting supplies.
“The mission of MedWish is undeniably powerful. I love meeting supporters and finding out how they got ‘hooked’ on MedWish,” said Executive Director Britta Latz. “For some, it was a medical mission trip, volunteering, or learning about the environmental impact. For me, it was a summer internship in 2009 and hearing recipient stories.” In 2021, Latz became the Executive Director, overseeing MedWish’s strategic direction and overall operations.
Opportunities exist to learn more or get involved. Warehouse volunteer shifts are open to sort through supplies and pack boxes at its warehouse location, 1625 E. 31st Street near Payne Ave. Humanitarian Happy Hour takes place at Whistle & Keg Taproom on March 16, from 4:30-7:30 p.m., whereby a portion of the proceeds benefits MedWish.
This summer, Medical Brigades will travel to Honduras (June 14-19) and the Dominican Republic (July 4-9). Medical professionals and non-medical participants are welcome.
And don’t miss the Band Aid Bash, MedWish’s annual fundraiser, on June 10, at FWD Day + Night Club.
To watch MedWish International’s “Where it all began” video, go to its website at medwish.org.