Len Barker is a man who believes in miracles. In a dusty warehouse across from the railroad tracks on East Lodi Avenue, Barker walks each morning to the deliveries door. He has no idea what he’ll find. Some days there is nothing. But on the good days, Barker begins to unwrap and sort boxes of donated medical supplies.
“Many, many times there’s things we need and I just pray for it. It’s amazing what turns up,” he said.
Needles go in one box. Sutures of different sizes are sorted and packed into another. Cans of dextrose and saline solutions, lifesavers during surgery, are stored in towering stacks, wrapped up in cardboard and plastic. A pile of debris grows by the door. Nearly a third of everything dropped off is either packaging or unusable.
The rest is considered gold.
Barker is one member of a team of three retired men who do this work. Steve Dorman, Michael Potter and Barker collect donations and fill 40-foot shipping containers with essential medical supplies. They pay for the containers to be shipped to hospitals, schools and orphanages around the world. Dorman sends to the Philippines, Potter focuses on Vietnam, and Barker ships supplies to the Congo.
The group doesn’t have a name. Barker’s son Chris Barker said he thinks that’s intentional.
“They don’t want it to be identified as tied to a particular church or charity,” he said. “They just want to be able to do what they need to do.”
Sometimes the trio are shocked at the value of machinery that donors leave behind. Barker ducked behind a counter and pulled out a small blue box device with two cords trailing. One ended in a pen-like tool with a place for a needle. The other ended in a foot pump. It was a surgical cautery device, to seal blood vessels. The cost? Up to $1,000. The hospital had gotten a new one.
“It looks a dump, then you realize what it’s worth,” said Barker. “It’s like brand new.”
Crates of government-issue air conditioners are dropped off, and fluorescent lights. Once, it was three brand new sets of surgical tools.
Containers fill up in the warehouse and are sent to Afghanistan, Congo, the Philippines, Mexico and Vietnam.
Almost all medical equipment must be brand new and disposable to be used on a patient, and also must be within their expiration dates.
Barker has consulted with manufacturers on the realities of expiration dates on medical equipment like needles, sutures and surgical tools. They say the items are good for several years. But the date exists to prevent lawsuits regarding old equipment. Barker is glad to collect what hospitals can’t legally use. Donations come in from hospitals all around, including Lodi Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton, and several in the Bay Area.
“We don’t know how many lives we’ve saved. Hundreds. Maybe thousands,” said Barker.
Barker, Potter and Dorman don’t get paid for their work. This is all volunteer. They send the shipping containers with donations or out of their own pockets. They have no website. Nothing on the books. Nothing official. What they have in common is a need to give.
“He is probably the anchor of what my wife and I do and what Mel does,” said Dorman.
Why they work
Barker does this work because it helps him to sleep at night.
“I can go to sleep each day thinking, ‘I’ve done some good today for somebody,’” he said.
Forty-five years ago, Barker was leading a quiet life in Sheffield, England. He worked in a hospital as a surgery technician and looked after a small church nearby. He was married to a woman named Beatrice, whom he met at a dance hall while he served in the Royal Air Force as a medic. They had three children.
Then a friend approached Barker with an idea.
“He thought I’d make a good missionary,” he said.
At first, Barker said he wouldn’t go. The assignment was for five years in a bush hospital in Songa, Congo. It was hundreds of miles away from anything but open land and small villages. It seemed crazy.
But his faith told him it was where he needed to go.
The family was dropped into a different world. After a crash course in French in Switzerland, they traveled by plane, then train, through South Africa, Botswana and Zambia to arrive at their hospital.
Less than 20 minutes after arriving in Songa, the family was surrounded by men with machine guns. But they didn’t want money or drugs. They demanded bread and aspirin. Barker handed it to them, and the little family walked free.
“In a missionary’s life, you expect that kind of thing. But not in the first 20 minutes,” he said.
In the mission hospital, Barker was a technician doing a doctor’s job. There was no one else to do it.
Barker recalled a young pregnant woman who was ready to deliver, but her baby was breech. The nearest hospital was hundreds of miles away. So her father found three bicycles and propped her up on the middle one between himself and his son to pedal the girl the whole way. It took three days.
Barker heard the generator whir to life in the dark, signaling an emergency. He performed a cesarean section on the girl. She lived. Her child didn’t.
Another time, a man came in with his arm mostly blown off by a blunderbuss rifle. Barker wrapped the injured arm in copper wire, encased the arm in plaster, and set the man up with a tent to live near the hospital until he healed.
Barker planned to stay the full run. But the civil war was raging, and his family was pulled out of the country after 14 months.
The family moved back to England and then tried Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Eventually they settled in Kansas City, where Barker took on a series of hospital jobs.
Today, Barker lives in Lockeford. His wife has since passed away of breast cancer. Chris Barker teaches math at San Joaquin Delta College and lives in Woodbridge. Another son, Steven Barker, works in a Colorado hospital, while his daughter Karen Barker lives in Oregon.
That brief time in Africa was enough time to ingrain Barker with an insatiable need to help these hospitals. He knew first hand how it felt to be overwhelmed in a poorly supplied hospital with no stores, no factories and nothing around to help.
“Unless you’ve lived there, you cannot fathom the conditions,” he said.
Like a drug
His partners share similar stories.
Dorman and his wife have been sending containers of supplies to the Philippines for 12 years.
Dorman is hooked on the work they do. He lives for the reaction on children’s faces when the supplies are unpacked.
“It’s like being a drug addict; you want to keep doing it and doing it,” he said. “We save an awful lot of lives, and you see it. You see it on a daily basis there.”
Potter, of Galt, met Barker while attending church in Vacaville. Potter, a retired correctional officer, was collecting donations from hospitals but didn’t have the medical experience to know where they could do the most good.
Barker, from his years of working in hospitals, knew exactly what each piece of equipment was and volunteered to help out.
“Lenny has been with us two years. He is invaluable. He is one of the hardest working guys I have ever run across,” said Potter. “We’re just three old guys gathering medical supplies and sending them where they can do good.”
Chris Barker said he doesn’t think his dad could be doing anything else.
“I think he’s on the right track and doing what little he can do. But actually, I think he’s doing quite a lot,” he said.
But over the past few weeks, the collection has grown smaller and smaller. The men have been told they must be out by the first of June. Someone else wants to use the warehouse to restore cars and has offered more than the men can afford. They are storing some items temporarily in a local transport company.
“We’ll have to stop what we’re doing unless we have someplace to put our supplies,” said Barker.
Barker dreams of a clean warehouse, with everything stacked tidily on the shelves. He would settle for just somewhere to keep supplies until there is enough to fill a container.
The trio will find some way to keep doing what they’re doing. Barker said he prays every day for a solution. He is confident things will work out. After all, he’s seen worse.
“People say there’s no God. They haven’t seen these miracles,” he said.
News-Sentinel reporter Katie Nelson contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.