By Cameron Walker
Apparel giant Hanesbrands is turning its rags — and plastic and wood scraps — into riches. Material once destined for the landfill is sold to recyclers for an average $2 million a year to fund health, education and environmental initiatives in the Caribbean and Central America. Health outreach took on new life in 2011 when Dale Browne, Wake Forest’s chairman of otolaryngology, teamed with Chris Fox, Hanesbrands’ vice president of corporate social responsibility. Since 2012, more than 800 surgeries and 5,000 health screenings for ear, nose and throat conditions have been performed in the Dominican Republic alone.
“It was perfect timing, because their Green for Good program was just getting started, and they were trying to find the right way to use the money,” Browne says.
Wake Forest surgeons, nurses, anesthetists, residents in training and, occasionally, medical students travel from North Carolina to give free medical care in the Caribbean and Central America, where Hanesbrands employs about 30,000 of its 70,000 global workforce.
“These trips were actually funded by stuff we used to throw away, which is a pretty cool story,” Fox says. “What we brought to the table is the ability to manage logistics on the ground.” Hanesbrands helps deliver medical equipment overseas, often on the same ships carrying its products.
Many of the procedures offered through the program, including tonsillectomies, surgeries to correct hearing loss, and cleft lip and palate repair, are relatively common in the United States but life-changing in other places. “There’s really nothing like our skills there,” Browne says. “They have the worst of the worst cases, little children that have failure to thrive and terrible sleep apnea and they visit the emergency room every month because of infection, and so we are able to offer even just the simplest procedures. We will do 30 or 40 [tonsillectomies] every time we go down.”
In one case, Browne performed a series of reconstructive surgeries on a woman whose face was ruined by a sinus tumor and its removal; a sunken eye drooped into her cheek and a hole gaped in the roof of her mouth. The woman’s appearance had prevented her from securing a job. “[Having the surgery] has really given her the opportunity to have a fairly normal life in terms of being able to have a good self-image and be out in public and be able to communicate and eat again,” Browne says. “Those are the kinds of procedures that they would not have any access to.”
Wake Forest doctors also train local medical staff to perform many of those procedures, instruction that has helped more patients suffering from similar ailments. “That has been one of the great outcomes, being able to teach them how to do procedures that they would not have access to otherwise,” Browne says, “being able to help people that I will personally never see, but they’re able to help.”