Facing Shortage, Neurosurgeon Sews Masks From Vacuum Cleaner Bags

Facing Shortage, Neurosurgeon Sews Masks From Vacuum Cleaner Bags

After she and her colleagues battle COVID-19 during the day, Rachel comes home and sews surgical masks at night. Dwindling supplies are prompting these desperate measures.
Sarah Hunt
By

Last Wednesday night, my younger sister asked me to overnight her three dozen vacuum cleaner bags. A neurosurgeon, Rachel was worried about the dwindling supply of surgical face masks at her hospital. She’d been told to do her rounds without a mask, to save precious supplies for health-care workers in the emergency department and Intensive Care Unit providing direct care to COVID-19 patients.

Frustrated that this would put the lives of her patients at risk because as a young woman she could be an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier, Rachel did what any respectable woman would under the circumstances: she decided to make her own.

Rachel has been quilting since she was young. When she left her initial career in nursing to pursue her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, she found more skill overlap from the things our grandmother taught us than she had anticipated.

Her sutures are elegant. Her ability to artfully piece things together has carried her from being a homeschool girl at a sewing machine to saving lives as a neurosurgeon at the operating table. To our knowledge, she is the only homeschooled woman among America’s approximately 5,000 neurosurgeons.

But now, during her third year of residency at an urban hospital in Detroit, she finds herself returning to the sewing machine again. After she and her colleagues battle COVID-19 during the day, Rachel comes home and sews surgical masks at night.

These homemade masks are not adequate protection for health-care workers. Quickly dwindling supplies of medical protective gear, like N95 masks, mean U.S. health-care workers must resort to desperate measures to reduce their chances of becoming sick.

After a few tries, Rachel perfected her prototype. She used simple materials: a 7.5” x 20” strip of fabric and shoelaces, and her sewing machine for a solution that can be sterilized and reused when she makes her rounds. She cuts pieces of the vacuum cleaner bag and inserts them into the mask to provide a more protective filter against contagions.

My sister is modeling scrappiness in the face of a crisis, but Rachel should not have to be making her own masks. This is America, land of abundance and ingenuity. We should be protecting our front lines, our first responders in the medical field, by arming them with adequate supplies for the long fight ahead.

Doctors should be able go home and sleep instead of making their own supplies. All across our country, hospitals are sharing their preferred sewing patterns for homemade masks and putting out calls for donations. Hopefully President Trump will soon avail himself of the full extent of his powers under the Defense Production Act and shortly, our health-care workers have adequate protective gear, so that my sister does not have to sew these far less protective, homemade masks for herself and colleagues in between her shifts.

If you have any spare N95 masks, sterile gloves, or hand sanitizer that you can donate to your local hospital, this is helpful to our national effort, too. Once you’ve committed to staying home, if you want to contribute further by making masks of your own and donating them to your local hospital, here’s her “recipe.”

Rachel’s Improvised Personal Protective Equipment

Ingredients

  • One-quarter yard of soft fabric that won’t bleed if bleached (cotton recommended, knits discouraged)
  • 20 or so inches of shoelaces or other material to fasten the mask around the ears or the back of the head
  • All-purpose polyester thread to match fabric
  • Pipe cleaners, cut to 4-inch pieces
  • Oreck XL microfilter vacuum cleaner bags (or any high-quality filtration vacuum cleaner bag), cut into 6” x 9” rectangles
  • Sewing machine
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Tequila, optional (Rachel’s favorite is Patron Silver)

Directions

  1. Cut out a 20” x 7.5” strip of fabric.
  2. Iron fabric and fold raw edges of the short ends at one-quarter inch. Press, then fold over again at one-half inch. Press again.
  3. Sew the French seam you just made with a quarter-inch seam allowance (use a straight stitch) on each end of the fabric.
  4. Fold the fabric in half lengthwise so your piece is 10 inches long. Arrange it so the two ends overlap just a little to one side of the fabric, and press the sides and pin the top and bottom edges.
  5. Sew the long edges with a quarter-inch seam allowance, starting the seam about one-quarter of an inch in from the outside edge and finishing about one-quarter of an inch away from the far edge. This will be the hole through which to string your ties later.
  6. Turn inside out and press down with the corners square. Sew the top and bottom again with an allowance of one-quarter inch, leaving the ends open as before. This top sleeve created by the French seams will be where you slip in the pipe cleaner to create an adjustable nosepiece.
  7. Run the ties through on each side, and run a short stitch on the upper portion of the sides to affix both ties into place in their sleeves, so they won’t fall out.
  8. Run a pipe cleaner through the top-edge sleeve, stopping it in the middle. Sew a short stitch on either side of it to secure it in place in the center portion of the mask.
  9. Tuck in the vacuum bag filter, and either wear or donate to your local hospital!
  10. Celebrate with a shot of tequila.
Sarah E. Hunt is the co-founder and CEO of The Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, a post-partisan think tank founded on the values of equality, freedom, and a more perfect union. She is the oldest of nine children and, like her sister, was homeschooled through high school.
Photo Rachel Hunt / Twitter

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