A local team of nurses working on the front lines of COVID-19 were able to breathe easier early on in the pandemic with deliveries of masks and hospital scrub caps to help protect them against the virus. The equipment was the gift of a GoFundMe campaign organized by California Lutheran University alumna Katherine DeMetre ’15 and joined by a groundswell of generous contributors.
DeMetre, who works as enrollment marketing coordinator at Cal Lutheran, launched her "Donate masks and hair caps to Los Robles Hospital" campaign on March 26, prompted by an Instagram post that grabbed her attention: "If anyone is bored during their stay-at-home quarantine, we would love some homemade masks."
The poster was her friend and fellow alumna Illissa Mestas ’14, a nurse on the team in the Thousand Oaks hospital's COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit. Her post, she recalled, stemmed from a conversation with her colleagues. "We were working with the first of the hospital's COVID-19 patients when we were hearing news about hospitals around the world running out of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)," she said. Particularly disturbing to them were reports of the dwindling nationwide supply of medical-grade masks. "We started worrying about our own supplies, our own health."
An Instagram post, she thought, might move a friend or two to send some masks her way. "Little did I know that Katherine was going to take this task head-on."
DeMetre was on the phone with her friend almost immediately, "Illissa expressed frustration that they were working 12 hours a day, day in and day out, and reusing their masks and scrub caps. I told her I would be happy to help in any way I could."
DeMetre launched her online campaign with an initial fundraising goal of $500. The plan, made with Mestas, was to use the funds raised to purchase handmade masks from sellers on the online marketplace Etsy. The sellers would ship the masks directly to Mestas' home, and she would distribute them to her colleagues at work.
The campaign reached its $500 goal in just one week. With sellers on Etsy — many of them a single person highly skilled with a sewing machine — asking about $5 to $10 per item, $500 could buy a lot of homemade cloth masks. But after DeMetre researched the wide variety of protective masks, she decided to include more expensive masks that incorporated HEPA filters or could be used along with an N95 mask — extending the life of the hospital-grade equipment.
DeMetre also added handmade scrub caps to the shopping list and raised the fundraising goal to $1,000 when Mestas told her the team's existing caps had all been used multiple times. "It's so much easier to throw on the PAPR (head-to-waist protective suits) and N95 equipment with your hair covered and pulled back," Mestas said.
The nurses' jobs entail everything from overseeing patients' vitals, medications and lab results to managing their ventilators and other respiratory devices.
"It may not seem like a lot," she said, "but it is absolutely exhausting."
New masks and scrub caps won't make their jobs any less exhausting. But, with the bright colors and fun designs produced by at-home seamstresses, they can add some cheer to the hospital's halls.
"They cheer up the patients as well," Mestas added. "When they're alone here, with no family allowed to visit and looking at a nurse covered head to toe in protective equipment, it's nice to catch a glimpse of normalcy on a scrub cap or a mask."
"The GoFundMe has become much more than the money donated," said DeMetre. Many people, inspired by the campaign, have donated masks and other protective equipment to Mestas and her team directly.
Particularly satisfying, she said, are the messages she has received from people all over Ventura County.
"Many people have told me how they're happy they can do this," she said. "They've known about these equipment shortages, but they didn't know how to help."
DeMetre's campaign gave people the opportunity to get involved and support their local health care facility. What started off as an act of kindness toward a friend quickly demonstrated the power of a community to come together, care and provide for those who risk their lives on a daily during this pandemic.