Durable medical equipment meets the sharing economy at CARES

May 1, 2019

Patients borrow 'good as new' medical equipment


Following the death of her father, Lillian Schonewolf's family had a garage full of nearly brand-new medical equipment — and no place in or around Langhorne, Pa., to donate it for reuse.


Schonewolf knew the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had a successful medical equipment recycling program — she'd heard about it at a conference for volunteer management that she'd attended in her prior capacity as director of community outreach and volunteer services for St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. To find out more about it and whether the program could be replicated at St. Mary she embarked on a road trip to Pittsburgh.

"It basically was exactly what I was hoping we could do," recalled Schonewolf, who is now regional vice president for community health and well-being for Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, the parent of St. Mary. "They took in equipment, cleaned it and then they were giving it out to those in need."

Schonewolf successfully pitched the idea of setting up a medical equipment reuse program in Bucks County, Pa., to leaders at St. Mary and the Community League of St. Mary. Now entering its fourth year, the Community Aid Refurbished Equipment Store, or CARES, cleans, inspects, repairs and hands out, on average, 300 wheelchairs, crutches, scooters, walkers and commodes each month.

Durable Medical Equipment
St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa., has loaned out gently used, durable medical equipment at its CARES store since May 2016.

In doing so, St. Mary joined a number of nonprofits across the country that are extending the useful life of a wide variety of medical equipment and keeping durable goods out of landfills. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for example, said it has distributed more than 15,000 pieces of refurbished equipment to people in need since the recycling program launched in 1999. That program provides wheelchairs, canes, walkers and other equipment to patients who lack insurance or don't otherwise have the means to meet their medical necessities.

Easy sell
Schonewolf said, to move forward, St. Mary administrators had to answer some basic questions: Where would the program be housed? And how would it be funded?

As for the location, Schonewolf had her sights on the two thrift stores down the street from the hospital run by one of the hospital's foundations. "We thought, 'Well, what if we take half of the one shop?'"

She approached Eileen Moser, chairperson of the Community League of St. Mary — a volunteer-run fundraising arm of the hospital foundation.


The Community League said yes to designating half the floor space in a thrift store to CARES and contributing $15,000 to buy an industrial-size sanitizing machine to clean the donated wheelchairs, walkers, canes and scooters at the facility and funding to transform a portion of the thrift shop into the CARES store. The operating budget was $59,328 in 2018.

The store has one paid staff person and 10 volunteers. It is open three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

In addition to equipment that helps patients move safely, people have donated packages of Depends and gadgets to help patients who can't bend over to put on their shoes.

Store founders advertised for volunteers with engineering backgrounds or other skills to repair the donated equipment. Meantime, Schonewolf approached community organizations, senior centers, churches and others in search of medical equipment that could be restored and handed out. Since its opening in May 2016, the store has been featured in local media. The program benefited mightily from word of mouth, she said, and has taken over more floor space in the thrift store.

Because those in need of medical equipment often are limited by their health plans to one such claim, customers do not have to be indigent or uninsured to make use of refurbished CARES equipment at no cost. In fact, people who apply to receive equipment do not have to reveal financial information to qualify. However, financial hardship can be a deciding factor if the demand for a certain piece of specialty equipment pits the needs of multiple applicants against one another, Schonewolf said.

"Obviously, we want to help anyone in the community and we have been fortunate that we have been able to because we have enough equipment," she said. "But our real concern is helping those who can't afford it. Those who are underserved in our community are our main focus."

Moser said that the medical equipment that goes out of the CARES store is "better than new" and "probably cleaner than what you would get in a store or a medical supply place."

CARES has donated surplus walkers, canes and other medical equipment to hurricane-ravaged regions in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Schonewolf helped deliver a truckload of refurbished medical equipment and donated cleaning supplies to federal emergency relief crews in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for shipment to Puerto Rico. Her grandparents lived in the U.S. territory at the time.

Lending library
Those who receive the CARES equipment are able to donate it back to the store. Some mobility devices have been distributed more than one time, making the CARES facility more of a "revolving library," Moser said.

Moser took advantage of the lending service herself after a complete tear of her Achilles tendon in October. Her doctor told her she would need a transport wheelchair, a knee scooter, a raised toilet seat, a shower chair, a walker, crutches and a cane. Moser checked out a wheelchair and knee scooter from CARES and returned them once she recuperated.

To date, the CARES staff has given out 4,500 pieces of equipment — not including the hurricane donations, Schonewolf said. Because of the success of the original store, Schonewolf said she is exploring the idea of opening a second CARES facility within Trinity's Mid-Atlantic region.

One of her favorite stories during the first four years of CARES was the man who left with a refurbished wheelchair. "Hey, I got my life back," the man told store workers, "because I can actually take a walk with my wife."


Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.