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Retired nurses answering call to become mask-makers as front-line demand continues

In the first edition of The Front Line, a regular series of stories about people who have become essential during the COVID-19 crisis, SooToday talks to volunteers who have stepped up

Over time during the First and Second World Wars, Canadian women responded to urgent appeals to make do with what they had, by recycling and salvaging.  

They put effort into garden tending, knitting goods like socks for servicemen, rolled bandages etc.  

They also concentrated on teaching young girls and children domestic skills like cooking, sewing and first aid so they were able to tend to those at home.

As evidenced in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, cotton muslin masks were worn by anyone heading out in public spaces. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in today's world there was a noted shortage of suitable masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for front line workers across the globe. It became apparent that the public would be called into action again.   

The recent call for Americans to wear homemade masks while outside has prompted Canada's Chief Medical Officer of Health — Dr. Tam to acknowledge that a homemade mask would be beneficial in some situations while complimenting the safety process as a whole.

By this time residents of Sault Ste. Marie had already stepped up to the plate. Efforts were well under way and groups formed to keep things organised. To date there have been approximately 8,000 masks donated through the Million Mask Challenge SSM Facebook group working together.  This does not account for those working outside of the group and on their own.

As the public was asked to donate high thread count cotton sheets or fabric and elastic they may have on hand, local quilt, sewing and fabric store owner Robyn Thompson, of Life's A Stitch, has been supplying fabrics and elastics for masks and their sewers. These items were stock in her store that she has brought home and made available. 

When people come to pick things up there is no interaction.  They would not have seen or touched anything prior, but simply pick up from her car port. She herself has sewn masks for her family and people she knows are at risk. Thompson's advice to those at home would be: "The same message that everyone is giving — keep your distance, wash your hands frequently, etc. Try to stay positive and keep busy!" 

Robyn's 23-year-old business where she sells quilt fabrics and notions, sewing machines and offers quilting classes, like many others was deemed non essential so she is unable to open for business and unclear whether curb side pickup is an option for her. 

"My business is closed. I have contacted banks regarding line of credit and credit card debt," said Thompson. She has since applied for an interest free business loan. 

There are a multitude of people making masks. They are from all walks of life and for many it's a family affair with men cutting and women sewing etc. Patricia Baker, a retired RN who worked at Sault Area Hospital who teaches part time at Sault College, is one of those people. To her it seemed logical. She was sent the patterns by email and because she is a sewer had fabric and elastic at the ready.

"I worked at SAH for 46 years, am very knowledgeable about PPE and how to put it on and take it off. I worked through SARS as a front line worker, it was overwhelming because we had never experienced something like that before. We did not have the PPE they have now. So I have the background, knowledge and professional responsibility to help my colleagues," said Baker. 

"Keep your distance, listen to the experts and we will come out the other side. Having SARS in my tool belt, it will take time and there will be new discoveries and new directions every day. Take heed, because if you don't you are only going to extend the misery for the rest of us who are compliant," said Baker.

Geri Turchet and Lucy Boston, both retired from SAH, answered the call to make masks for family and SAH after reading about the need.

"I hadn’t done much sewing recently, hadn’t followed a pattern in over 25 years therefore I found the online pattern overwhelming, not too easy to understand at first glance and I knew it would be a challenge for me to sit down and figure it out which I had intended to do. I didn’t start immediately however. What really helped me along was hearing from my sister that she was sewing masks for SAH and then what really prompted me to dig out my 1981 Kenmore was when a friend who is a retired SAH ER nurse told me she was sewing masks and she emailed me the pattern she was using — a revised SAH recommended pattern. It had nice clear concise instructions that I really appreciated and could quickly and easily follow," said Turchet.

"My husband cuts the wires into four-inch lengths, these are the wires I sew into the face masks — they're used by the wearer to squeeze the top of the mask snug around the bridge of the nose. I follow the pattern revised by Gabi’s group, wash the finished products (face masks with ties) in hot water, a high speed spin and dry in a hot dryer to make sure the masks are durable before they go out the door," said Turchet.

"In this time of uncertainty we have to make the best of what we have. Some of the things we took for granted have now begun to be missed. I do worry about the future of our economy and especially that of our young generation. We are now more conscious of what is out there and rules we must follow to survive. More time is spent reconnecting with family members and friends. For me I have no problem keeping busy or being bored. I love to read and am thankful we can access books and audio books through the library. I find grocery shopping so surreal now. I do miss seeing my children, grandchildren, volunteer work, gathering with family/friends, playing duplicate bridge," said Boston.

Stitches From The Heart Quilt Guild requested their members make masks. Merrilyn Webb, a retired special education teacher and guild member whose husband volunteers at SAH, began sewing.

"I had all the necessary supplies at home, and it was a perfect project for left over quilting cottons. Friends and neighbours have helped supply the essential elastic, by leaving packages in my mailbox!  At my church, St Luke’s Cathedral, I had recently been given some fabric from a lady who was moving to a retirement home. Some of her material was perfect for use in the masks," said Webb.

"I feel very fortunate that I have my quilting hobby, which I can work on at home, on my own, and still keep connected with friends via the phone and emails. At the end of any day, I have had a focus and may have completed a project," she said.

"Reach out to someone you may be thinking about, phone them or send an email. Your personal contact may make a positive difference to that person’s day. So many people are alone at this time and are suffering because their normal lives have involved being out with people. We have to be aware of people’s mental health and this isolation doesn’t help. So, reach out and 'touch' someone via technology. Find something positive and share some humour with family and friends," said Webb.