Sep. 19 2017

A Mailman Alumna’s Supersized Care Packages

After years as a health insurance executive, Danielle Butin, MPH 1991, set out to redirect excess medical supplies to areas in need around the world

Danielle Butin, MPH '91, was familiar with the data on health inequities between the United States and low-income countries. Even so, she was shocked on a trip to Tanzania to learn that physicians there lacked even the most basic medical supplies, to the extent that surgeons were forced to make their own sutures by pulling apart packets of gauze.

A veteran of the executive suite of a Fortune 500 health insurance company, Butin knew where to find extra sutures. Every year, millions of dollars of unused and perfectly safe supplies are discarded by hospitals due to strict regulations. In 2007, she founded Afya—“good health” in Swahili—to redirect these materials from the landfill to areas in need around the world. In the 10 years since, the organization has shipped over 200 cargo containers to 72 countries.

Afya is a rescue operation, say Butin, saving everything from bandages to ultrasound machines for people who need them the most, from residents of Haiti affected by the 2010 earthquake to, more recently, refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. Each shipping container holds between $200,000 and $1 million in supplies. “No one likes waste,” she says, “especially when what’s being wasted is so desperately needed.”

Trained as an occupational therapist, Butin enrolled at the Mailman School in 1988 to learn how to design and implement health programs for seniors. As a student, she was given the chance to do an independent study with a state hospital not long after legislation was passed that changed the rules on restraining older adults. The hospital didn’t know what to do, she explains. “I was asked to create the entire staff training, and all the implementation models for how this needed to change.”

By the time she graduated, Butin was expert enough that she was asked to stay on to co-teach a class on models of care for the elderly. Then in 1996, she was offered a job at Oxford Health Plans. The decision wasn’t easy. “Part of me said ‘you’re the enemy of medicine’. But [the company] said you can do all the program design you can imagine and we’ll give you a budget for it.” True to their promise, in her new role, Butin created programs for 150,000 seniors in the greater New York City area. Aspects of her program design were later incorporated into the Affordable Care Act. 

Butin says her experience getting an MPH gave her the confidence and skills to bring her ideas to scale. “It was Mailman that planted the seed for me,” she says “I have had a career of scaling and building extraordinary programs domestically and internationally. That’s what I went in to gather, and it was delivered in spades.”

The organization’s global logistics operation begins in a Westchester warehouse where volunteers organize and pack supplies. (Butin invites members of the Mailman School to take part.) Materials are largely sourced from hospitals, but a portion of the cargos are donated by individuals, including families of the recently deceased who are comforted knowing their loved one’s wheelchairs or walker will be used by someone on the other side of the world. “It’s not just about what’s needed abroad,” she says. “I also see opportunities for the curative properties of altruism here at home.”

For creating these altruism opportunites, in 2014, the New York State Senate recognized Butin as a Woman of Distinction. In 2010, Eli Lilly presented her with its Welcome Back Award, recognizing Afya’s volunteer opportunities for adults with mental health challenges, as well as men and women on probation and parole.  

Over the last ten years, Afya’s volunteers have been packing shipments bound for the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the Aegean Sea. Items include portable defibrillators and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation machines used in rescue boats to save people from drowning. The item most in demand by clinicians, however, is medical gloves. Afya has delivered 14,000 pairs. “It’s mind-blowing,” she says, “that in the European Union, we’re being asked for something as simple as gloves.”

Currently, Butin is embarked on what might be her biggest logistical challenge to date—working with a multi-faith alliance to get supplies to caregivers inside Syria. “They have almost nothing to deliver care to save lives with,” Butin says. “We want to support them. Knock wood, we have never had an abandoned container. Not a single one that wasn’t shipped and used exactly as intended.” Meanwhile, Afya is collecting 250,000 pounds of supplies headed for another group closer to home: residents of Southeast Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey. “Wherever there’s need, that’s where we go.”