Early in March, hospitals were quickly overwhelmed by the pandemic, causing a crisis-level scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly masks. Masks that were typically disposed of after each patient were being worn for up to a week. The CDC issued guidance to healthcare workers to wear a bandana while caring for patients.
That's when Lisa Omori, mother of Ella '20
and Kai Belzer '21
, reached out to her childhood friend, a critical care physician in New York, where the pandemic had hit fast and hard. When asked if they needed masks, and if he could use homemade ones, his response was a desperate "yes." The Omoris went into immediate action.
Lisa found some instructions for effective, safe, homemade masks online and made several prototypes, testing each for breathability and comfort. She made a pattern that could be worn alone or over an n95. While she knew that a homemade mask did not offer the kind of protection that healthcare professionals need, it was better than a bandana and certainly better than reusing masks as healthcare workers were doing.
While supplies like elastic, thread, needles, and fabric were hard to come by, Lisa had been sewing since elementary school, so she had her ubiquitous "sewer's stash" of fabric. She had collected materials from Japan, Hawaii, and Bora Bora and had been saving some for decades for a special project. It was clear that there was nothing more important than making masks. And she hoped that the unique fabric would brighten someone's day.
Her mother passed on sewing skills, sewing with great detail in an "old-fashioned" way so that things can last a very long time. She also had a lifetime of employing a Japanese philosophy of "mottainai shinai," which means not wasting anything, so scrambling for supplies to make masks was something she had trained for her whole life!
Soon, home sewists all over the country started collectively sewing late into the night. Lisa joined a group called "Million Mask Challenge'' on Facebook. In partnership with "getppe.org
," the group posts a need for masks, and the group fills those needs as quickly as possible. There has been a constant flood of requests from hospitals, clinics, military, nursing homes, and reservations. It was a bit out of control at first, combined with desperate friends asking for masks for themselves and their neighbors. Once the kids were in bed, and her own school work was completed, she would sew late into the night every day, giving herself a 2:00 a.m. "stop-time."
As that initial surge waned a bit, she expanded her reach by providing masks to essential workers in her direct community, such as delivery drivers, grocery store workers, firefighters, and EMTs. She sent masks to Chandler parents, who are physicians, as well as to Chandler teachers, staff, administrators and families, past and present. It wasn't just about delivering masks; it was the feeling of being connected to the community. She wanted people to know someone cared about them, and it helped her to feel less isolated too.
Mask making is a family affair as Ella and Kai help Lisa with ironing and packaging, and there is constant activity in the house. “It's given us a sense of purpose as we shelter in place,” says Lisa. They reached their personal goal of sewing and donating 2,500 masks, and now they continue to make well-fitting masks for friends and family.