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The thread that binds

Local sewers make face masks for health care workers during pandemic

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
The Rev. Sara Hill, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Dodge, dons one of the new handmade masks that dozens of sewers in the church and beyond are stitching together for medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the Iowa Army National Guard made deliveries of critical personal protective equipment to Webster County on Friday, another small army had started making advances.

But many locals are learning that the task of arming local health care providers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. What’s more is that they’re learning they don’t need to be medical professionals to help, either.

With each stitch, they’re realizing that their small talents, when combined, are enough to make a difference.

“We can’t all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love,” said the Rev. Sara Hill, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Dodge, quoting Mother Theresa.

With an idea from Dr. Kelli Wallace, medical director for Webster County Public Health, Hill helped organize a group of sewing parishioners after First Presbyterian disbanded the usual activities they congregated for in the sewing room: making lap quilts for retirement homes and quilts for graduating seniors, among others.

Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Though sewing machines at First Presbyterian Church used for myriad projects temporarily lay dormant, the people that used them are finding new, smaller projects they can make at home to contribute to those working to fight against the coronavirus, even if they can’t go out in public themselves.

Little did Hill know that they couldn’t stop the whir of a sewer’s sewing machine for long.

“I’m not a doctor, or a nurse, or a surgeon. I’m not on the frontlines, but can I be an organizer?” Hill said. “Yeah, I can.”

With a variety of fabric scraps lined up on a pew outside the pastor’s office–one that might give a small fabric shop a run for its money–sewers showed up right as the church unlocked its doors Monday morning, rearing to go with a UnityPoint Health-approved pattern.

About 70 printed pattern instructions had been taken by the end of the week, and a few clicks on social media garnered interest from many more people, even from those not from their church, to help.

“I know the necessity of having these face masks,” said Jean Stanley, a retired pathologist secretary who worked alongside her lab manager husband for 40 years. “It was a no-brainer that it was the right thing to do.”

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Using specific directions, sewers are making reusable masks for healthcare workers that hospitals can slip filters into to make them medically effective in a clinical setting.

Since Monday, Stanley has spent several hours each day to cut out and stitch patterns that ensure full coverage of the face, with elastic loops for the ears and a compartment that allows users to insert medically effective filters.

Since taking up sewing and quilting as a hobby in her retirement starting in 1999, Stanley said she has made well over 100 quilts, giving most away for good causes.

While Stanley and her husband stay indoors, with both having pre-existing conditions that put them at risk for complications from COVID-19, this is yet another project that quietly gives purpose, employing the skill she learned out of necessity as a child.

“I think we all have to help each other in these times,” she said. “The main thing I want to do is ensure I’m helping someone, somehow.”

This week, UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center suspended all non-essential services in a variety of clinics and centers in Fort Dodge to help combat the spread of COVID-19 and preserve precious supplies.

“We believe that taking this step now is in the best interest of all and will help us further concentrate on making sure we have adequate equipment and supplies during this challenging period,” said Troy Martens, chief operating officer, in a statement.

To essential health care infrastructure, the gesture from local sewers is welcomed.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by generous offers from the community, whether masks or any other way,” said Alyssa Stanek, marketing specialist for UnityPoint in Fort Dodge.

Webster County Public Health and UnityPoint said the cloth masks can be worn by those providing indirect care, such as registration staff, as well as doctors and nurses wearing another N95 mask underneath. Similar versatility is being considered for those in other service lines like pharmacies.

“Fabric masks offer the benefit of being able to be washed and reused as each health care worker will need to change their mask several times during their shifts,” UnityPoint’s online instructions say.

“We are currently ensuring that our personal protective equipment is being used wisely,” said Kelli Bloomquist, public information officer for Webster County’s Emergency Operations Center, a local group of leaders coordinating the response to coronavirus.

The state of Iowa delivered additional surgical masks and PPE on Friday to the Webster County Law Enforcement Center.

Where sewers diverge is in their fashion aesthetic — a factor that rarely comes into play with medical equipment.

“The colorful patterns can cheer people up,” said sewer Kim Bodholdt, of Fort Dodge, who has been making the masks with her daughter. “When I heard about this, I knew it was something helpful I could do.”

Stanley prefers all white for the reassurance of a sterile look.

But what they can all agree on is that the masks have served as a thread weaving the community together, even as it’s forced apart physically by social distancing.

“Having a purpose for (the people) sewing these masks connects them to the outside world,” Hill said. “I want it to bind us all together with love.”

And in times of crisis, perhaps small acts of kindness are more heroic than their face value.

“We’re just doing what we can,” she said.

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