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Medical Supplies

Some travellers from Ontario and Alberta have been bringing more than just tourist dollars to countries such as Cuba " they're also packing badly needed medical supplies.

A do-it-yourself humanitarian aid group called Not Just Tourists has been filling old suitcases with donated medicine and supplies such as syringe needles and eyeglass frames to send to developing countries.

But instead of mailing the supplies or recruiting special volunteers, the group hand-delivers them through ordinary travellers.

The group, which now has branches in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary,starts by asking doctors and pharmacists to contribute items such as medications that are nearing the end of their shelf life.

Then the work is handed to volunteers such as Marian van Riel.

Van Riel's Ottawa basement is piled with old suitcases that she fills from bins containing cartons of pills, packages of syringes and other basic medical supplies.

Van Riel said rural clinics and hospitals in Cuba have trouble getting such items partly because of the U.S. trade embargo with the country.

"When tourists came back and said they were so happy with plain old acetaminophen, Tylenol and ibuprofen ... and vitamins, it just made me realize how in dire straits they were," Van Riel said.

Van Riel passes the full suitcases on to tourists such as Nigel and Angela Kilby, who also carry a letter from a Canadian doctor that explains the contents to customs officials.

The Kilbys took two suitcases with them to a rural clinic in Cuba last winter, where they were taken aback by the level of need.

"This idea of opening up a cupboard for supplies and being completely empty " this was the worst part about it, I think," Nigel Kilby recalled.

But Angela Kilby has fond memories of hand-delivering some supplies to local medical staff to fill those empty shelves.

"We were hugged and kissed," she recalled. "It was like Christmas again in January."

Not Just Tourists was started by a doctor and his wife in St. Catharines, Ont.

Seeking a way to deliver larger items

The Ottawa branch is just starting to receive donations from long-term care facilities that include larger equipment such as hospital beds, wheelchairs and walkers.

The group needs to find alternative means of transportation for items that won't fit in a suitcase, but volunteer Jennifer McSporran said the group is working on the problem and is certainly not turning down the items in the meantime.

"I'm a nurse myself and I know how much this equipment costs," she said. "It would be a pity to see it just go to a landfill, and so if it can be used again, all the better."


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