Stitchers Donate Talents to Help South Bay Healthcare Workers

As local hospitals scramble to keep personal protective equipment stocked during the worldwide novel coronavirus outbreak, South Bay stitchers are donating loads of hand-sewn masks to help out.

“I haven’t counted them and I haven’t looked at our inventory yet, but the number is hundreds,” Chris Wilder, CEO of the Valley Medical Center Foundation, said in a recent interview. “That’s because there’s a small but dedicated army of people of all ages with sewing machines out there.”

The hand-sewn masks, Wilder said, will be used in “non-clinical” situations, likely for volunteers, janitorial staff and food services workers, for example. He said doctors and clinicians will be using existing and newly donated stocks of N-95 masks.

“The N-95 masks … are really a technical device,”  Wilder said. “They need to be made by a large corporation with the proper fabrication methodology. It’s not something that you can just make at home.”

And the South Bay community has been generous with its professionally made N-95 mask donations, he added.

“The good news is the community around us has been super generous and we’ve gotten thousands [of N-95 masks] donated just in the last few days,” he said. “There’s so many coming in that right now we are cautiously optimistic. But we also are doing what every other hospital and nonprofit is doing, and that is looking around for sources where we might buy some. That’s getting harder to do.”

As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise (by press time Tuesday, the count reached 1,666 confirmed and 60 deaths), and hospitals prepare for the worst, his healthcare officials at the Valley Medical Center have told him to continue taking the homemade fabric masks until they tell him to stop—and so far they haven’t said stop.

“Really, the whole goal right now is to be ready because we don’t know what the next week is going to look like, let alone the next month,” Wilder said. “So we want to be ready for what may come, and that means we are looking for as many resources as we can get.”

Sujata Kumar, who arrived in America from India to visit her son’s family in San Jose in early March, has sewn hundreds of masks since the county’s first shelter-in-place order went into effect and news broke that healthcare workers would need the extra supplies.

“Let’s see how much I can stitch. I try to stitch more and more,” Kumar said. “It makes me really happy doing this.”

The first 20 masks she made were delivered by her son, Siddharth Seth, a mile or so down the road to San Jose’s Good Samaritan Hospital. The next batch was delivered to an organizer with My New Red Shoes, a local nonprofit working to gather masks and distribute them to Bay Area hospitals.

Minh Ngo, executive director for Redwood City-based My New Red Shoes and a Saratoga resident,  remotely gathered her team of staff and volunteers to get masks made starting March 20. “I don’t know how everyone else is coping, but I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping, a lot of things keeping me up,” Ngo said.

She said she found posts online asking for PPE (personal protective equipment) donations as the nation, and her Santa Clara County, began running low.

With most of her volunteers residing in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, she said masks were something they could do. They made connections with Valley Medical and Kaiser teams and got work getting supplies gathered and masks over to hospitals.

“This is something I think all organizations and all companies do, not just here in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, but everywhere,” Ngo said. “I think in times of a crisis, when your community needs you, when your country needs you, we all have a responsibility to mobilize and to get creative and figure out what we can bring to the table and how we can make that difference, even if it’s outside of what we typically do.”

So far her team of volunteers has put a few hundred masks together and plans to continue doing so. Susie Sahim, a San Jose resident, is one of those volunteers. Like Ngo, she said she was up late one March night, horrified by the news of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and decided she wanted to help. “I was glued to the news, watching what was unfolding and it was like watching a nightmare unfold,” Sahim said. “And it still is. The numbers keep climbing and I just felt so helpless.”

While Sahim had not previously volunteered with the organization, she connected with the nonprofit to put her sewing skills to use. “I just kind of felt compelled,” she said. “I was like, ‘I have to do something, the world is falling apart. I must try to do something.’”

As an avid cosplayer who sews as a hobby, she knew she could make masks while isolating at home with her husband, Mike Mitchell, who had enough copper wire laying around to construct the bridge on the nose of the mask. Together, they began crafting, and My New Red Shoes came to pick up the products.

Other locals are doing the same, though some aren’t directly tied to an organization.

A sister-and-brother team in San Jose are sewing and distributing masks. Capriana and Trenton Jiang, who are both home from college and high school during the shelter order, by earlier this week had counted nearly 1,000 masks made and donated from people around their city, and they took them right to the Valley Medical Center Foundation.

Together, they coordinate pickups and drop offs via a Facebook group they made called Mask-ER-Aid. “I think everyone has a part to play,” Capriana said. “We can be doing more than just self-isolating.”

Trenton said it helps him to know he’s contributing something during the crisis. “It makes me feel good doing volunteer work, knowing that I’m having an impact now and I’m not just a bystander,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”

The Valley Medical Center Foundation has a website with their guidance for hand-sewn masks and are also taking PPE and cash donations vmcfoundation.org.

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