Dr. Susan Haefner, the medical director of the pediatric intensive care at Flagstaff Medical Center, climbed into her old white Dodge Ram pickup last Sunday and drove to the Lowe’s hardware store in Prescott to buy 355,000 square feet of Tyvek house wrap.
Haefner wasn’t building a McMansion; she was responding to a Facebook post that she had seen the day before where someone was talking about using the building material to make medical isolation gowns for health care workers battling the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic.
“I read a Facebook post, I don’t remember exactly where, but someone was asking for Tyvek for isolation gowns. I thought about it overnight and woke up the next morning and thought, 'we could do that,'” Haefner said.
“I bought 26 rolls of Tyvek. Each roll is nine feet wide and 150 feet long. As I was leaving the store, I asked the manager if I was taking the last that they had, but he said that they get deliveries daily.”
By 11 a.m. Monday morning Haefner was standing in the commons at Sinagua Middle School, which normally would be filled with the hubbub of young teens eating lunch. With all of the students gone, and school canceled for the remainder of the school year, the expansive room was now occupied by a dozen women spread out with sewing machines all wearing face masks and converting sheets of white house wrap into hospital gowns.
Watching the project take shape before her on Monday, Haefner said, “I don’t know crap about sewing, but I can delegate. We should be able to get 24 gowns from each roll and the more we make, the more we can work out ways to get more gowns per roll. The great thing about these is that we should be able to launder them, so each one could be washed four or five times to be reused. This is going to be a huge help in the hospital.”
On that first morning Haefner hoped they would be able to turn out 100 isolation gowns a day. News was spreading across the mountain and people who had been looking for a way to help were coming together.
“You don’t need to know how to sew to be a help -- you can cut material, cut elastic and velcro,” she said.
Realizing that she needed help organizing a growing group, Haefner reached out to her friend Debbie McMahon, a retired teacher who worked for the Department of Defense.
As news about the project spread, it became clear that despite the large area of the commons, it wouldn’t be sensible for everyone to gather in one place.
“On Monday afternoon I looked up and there’s a fellow standing there in the commons. His clothes didn’t match and he looked like a river runner. It was Jason Hughes, who owns Wet Dreams River Supply Company. He’s been taking our Tyvek rolls 10 at a time and using his industrial cutters and cutting up patterns and delivering them back to us about 100 a day," Haefner said. "That helped us not need to cut the patterns in one place and Jason could do it much faster than we were doing it.”
Reached by phone on Friday evening at the end of the first week, Haefner reflected on the progress so far.
“What our production has turned into is we spend the mornings putting packets together. Yesterday we had a line of cars around the school, we started to control access to the school for social distancing. We just had way too many volunteers wanting to help to have everyone in the building. Now we have a line of cars coming to pick up packets of cut-out patterns and bags of elastic and velcro. We didn’t want 100 people inside the building. In the afternoons they bring back what they made and pick up more packets. Today we ran out. We turned away about 20 cars.
“Today 375 gowns stitched by members of the community were delivered to FMC. We changed the pattern three times, twice on Tuesday and an adjustment today after feedback from more washing and testing.
“A person made a Facebook page for the project. We made a video of the process from the cutting of the pattern to the final sewing of the gown and that is up on the Facebook page. We have had requests from the pattern from people in Tucson and it’s available to anyone who wants it.
“We bought 56 more rolls of Tyvek from Homco on Tuesday and Jason still has that. We ran out of Tyvek today at the school. What we are hearing from the medical staff is that the gowns are being used to fill stopgaps when it’s 3 a.m. and you need an isolation gown to see a patient and there isn’t one."
Despite being the person who started the project, Haefner was quick to talk of the work of others.
“Cathy Hilton and Debbie McMahon are the ones I called on Sunday to see if they could take apart a gown and make patterns and if the Tyvek was really sewable. Cathy and Debbie have organized all of the volunteers, created a system, arranged for donations from Odegaard's, JoAnn Fabrics, Home Depot and Homco," Haefner said. "We have had almost 200 people donating their time and skills to get these gowns made and we even have a local realtor, Eileen Taggart, who has been arranging donated food from local restaurants to keep everyone fed.
"There has been so much food. Holy moley, it's amazing to me. I think our community needed something to come together and do something to help take care of these patients and our staff. This has demonstrated to me that I’m really happy that I moved to Flagstaff.
"We will carry on until we run out of Tyvek. I can’t say enough about Jason from Wet Dreams. The recognition really needs to go to Cathy and Debbie and the community. They are the ones who have really made a difference and through their work are saving lives.”
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