In mid-March, during the first weeks of what would turn out to be a prolonged global shutdown, news about a severe shortage of PPE among healthcare staff emerged. The fact that healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID response couldn’t protect themselves was greatly concerning. Though medical students like us were unable to contribute in a hospital setting, we still wanted to assist in a meaningful way to the pandemic response.
Our initial idea was to bring together a group of volunteers in London, Ontario – where we attend school – to sew cloth masks for members of the community; the idea being to save medical-grade PPE for healthcare workers. The urgency of the situation quickly made it clear that additional forms of PPE were needed, especially for high risk groups such as those employed in the healthcare field.
It turned out that we weren’t the only ones who came to this conclusion. We were able to connect with Janet Dang from the London-Middlesex Primary Care Alliance, and Katie Timson from the London/Middlesex chapter of Canada Sews, a volunteer organization that sews PPE for frontline healthcare workers, who were already in the process of distributing PPE to the community. We learned about areas of PPE usage that needed to be addressed and took on the role of organizing and distributing handmade isolation gowns to primary healthcare providers. To manage this, we created an order form and organized a system for receiving the gowns from volunteer sewers; we then quarantined the gowns prior to delivery.
We started receiving orders almost immediately – from long term care homes, community clinics, pharmacies, dentist’s offices, etc. As we imagined, there was a big demand for homemade PPE—and it happened to coincide with the government of Canada publicly recognizing the importance of wearing cloth facemasks and other forms of PPE.
One issue facing med students who are participating in COVID response initiatives like this one is that we’re not covered by our medical insurance and are therefore susceptible to liability. We refined our gown order disclaimers with the generous pro bono assistance of Cohen-Highley LLP, a local law firm, and worked with Canada Sews to ensure that their delivery process also met these standards.
As the project grew, we brought on additional members of ASPIRE – Ruth Neumann and Brintha Sivajohan – to help us with community outreach. In an effort to increase morale and show support for those who were receiving the gowns, Ruth created personalized Thank You notes that accompanied each delivery—after all, COVID-19 not only has an impact on the physical health of patients, but takes an enormous emotional toll on health care workers. We thought it was important to show our appreciation for all their hard work.
Recently, we reached the milestone of delivering our 500th gown. And though homemade gowns are not a replacement for proper medical-grade PPE, we hope that the support we’re able to give primary care facilities is providing them with some form of protection should shortages be prolonged—or new ones occur.
If anyone in primary care in the London area is in need of homemade gown PPE, they can place an order through our online form.
We’re also looking for resources to purchase materials, as well as volunteer sewers in the London community so that we can increase our production capacity. If anyone is interested in making a small donation, recommending a source of funding, or volunteering to make gowns with us, they can do so at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick, Mike, and Kaveh are three first-year medical students at the Schulich School of Medicine, Western University in London, Ontario.
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