From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

She was five years old when she made the trip from Czechoslovakia to the United States of America with her mother, sister, and brother. Helen still remembers meeting her father, waiting for them at Ellis Island, as they came through on the Queen Mary. He fought against the Bolsheviks at the age of sixteen as a soldier in the Ukrainian army. Near the end of the Second World War he decided to immigrate to the United States, a country he called “the country of last hope.” He loved the freedom in the United States, but he and Helen’s mother spoke sadly of their native homeland where they left everything, family and friends, to escape a totalitarian regime. Helen grew up hearing so many horror stories about people in need because of war. That’s likely why she became a nurse.

In early 1991, her operating room manager at the University of Virginia said, “Helen, I’d like you to take on a little project.”

“Okay,” Helen naively agreed. “What’s up?”

“Our nineteen operating rooms here are generating too much waste . . . clean stuff they haven’t used . . . and it’s very expensive to incinerate. With your twenty years in the OR, you have the knowledge and experience to figure out what to do with it all. ”

So for a year, Helen collected clean medical supplies from all their operating rooms and donated them to missions. She researched the issue of RMW (regulated medical waste) and spoke to every expert she could find on this issue. She was appalled to learn that more than 2.4 million tons of hospital waste is generated in the United States annually, with the operating rooms being the largest waste generators.

“This is gold waste,” she said, coining her own new phrase.

Helen worked four ten-hour days in the operating room, then spent countless hours networking with people on behalf of missions. Before she could say, “How did I get myself into this?” she had formed MERCI: Medical Equipment Recovery of Clean Inventory.

MERCI began receiving wish lists from many small mission groups. Helen never promised anything to anyone, but she did promise to work as hard as she could to fill their requests.

For years she sorted supplies after work, every day and on weekends. In July 1995, she was given one day a week for her “little project.” By 1997, MERCI had a steady stream of volunteers helping to sort, and the results have been beyond their wildest imaginations.

Since Helen started this “little project,” MERCI has captured and diverted more than 350 tons of clean medical supplies valued at $75 million, and sent them all over the world. Another 50-plus tons have been donated to the University of Virginia research labs and to surgeons’ mission trips.

When a local private hospital switched to powder-free gloves, they donated several skids of powdered gloves for a physician to ship to his sister hospital in the Ukraine. “In the Ukraine,” he said, “doctors are doing rectal exams without any gloves.”

When MERCI shipped 6,000 pounds of supplies to a hospital in Lithuania, a nearby hospital came up with 80,000 more pounds for them! Helen networked with a mission who paid to ship all 86,000 pounds. Soon after, another contact donated $200,000 of medical supplies to a Russian endeavor, then paid to ship the supplies there.

When she heard a clinic in Haiti needed a sterilizer, Helen wrote for nine months to a supplier who finally donated one.

Christian Relief, Advancing the Nations, Helping Hands, Operation Smile, Crosslinks, and Equipping the Saints are only a few of the many missions that have received medical goods from MERCI.

A nurse who helped Helen sort supplies for ten years saw a need for a hospital in Bolivia. MERCI donated thousands of pounds to this effort. Eventually, with the help of donations, the nurse bought a hospital in Bolivia and had the grand opening in July 2002. The story got even better when a local pediatric surgeon and the hospital donated free services to perform an operation on a small Bolivian child who suffered with an imperforated anus.

Over the years, Helen has presented the work of MERCI at the National Institutes of Health, and to the National Association of Physicians for the Environment, where MERCI was cited as a best practice. She has sat on a task force on Medical Waste Minimization per the request of her congressman. She spoke at Health Care Without Harm conferences, the Environmental Protection Agency Region III Environmental Colloquium, and to the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. She was asked to help with a humanitarian initiative and to submit a proposal on how a MERCI-like template can be used at the federal level.

Before she retires in a few years, she’s on another mission— to get every hospital in the United States to adopt a MERCI program. Helen says, “Can you imagine the good they could do if every unit on every hospital joined in?

“I pray our nation never comes under attack, has an influenza crisis, or suffers a grave natural disaster. FEMA, the Red Cross, and other relief organizations would not be able to provide enough first-aid supplies to the masses. But if there were a MERCI-like program throughout the United States, it would be the conduit for clean medical supplies to every local church in every community.”

Helen’s MERCI program still has no budget and the office is still in her home. She still works in a small area off of a loading dock. But she’s confident that when her sister-and brotherhood of nurses learn about MERCI, they’ll have a warehouse, website, and worldwide relief!

Helen French
as told to LeAnn Thieman

[EDITORS’ NOTE: To learn about MERCI and how it can be implemented at your health care facility, visit ]

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