The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired people around the world to join forces to save lives and minimize the coronavirus’s global path of destruction. On the front lines of that battle are medical providers, public health experts, scientists, and the various essential workers who are making sure we all have our basic needs met.
And, there are the regular people who have opened their hearts, cleared their calendars and stepped up to help in new ways.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and its clinical care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, are home to some of those coronavirus-fighting scientific and medical experts. Those experts’ work has been featured on front-page news around the world. But there are also stories of Fred Hutch and SCCA employees who, on their own time, have found ways to make a difference behind the scenes.
We share a few of them here.
“After reading about the shortages of protective gear that health care workers were facing, I really wanted to try to do something to help,” said Fred Hutch scientist Dr. Kristin Anderson.
Anderson is an expert in cancer immunotherapy, not medical-supply procurement. But she does have a relevant skill: knowing the right people.
Her engineer uncle, Dr. Dan Freedman, had worked closely with doctors in his home state of New York to design an open-source DIY face shield — “which some of my friends in health care confirmed were in short supply,” Anderson said. Freedman’s shield is assembled from a transparency sheet for an overhead projector, rubber bands, and a plastic headband that is printed on a standard 3D printer. The shield can be disinfected for use again and again.
At her uncle’s behest, Anderson shared the design on her social media accounts.
Then, Anderson had a flashback to a 3D-printing facility she’d spotted on a tour of Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, where two of her kids go. What if the school could print the shields for the Seattle medical community, she wondered. She sent a note to one of their teachers with her idea to print face-shield components for SCCA, which she confirmed would accept them.
“And that teacher then forwarded her message to me,” said Nathan Hale’s Karl Englert, “and I thought: ‘Well, I guess I’m it.’”
Englert is a chemistry and physics teacher who helped create the “maker space” Anderson had seen, and he supervises the students in charge of its 3D printers.
With the school shutdown keeping his student experts at home, Englert set up the machines in his garage and taught himself basic 3D printing. He managed to troubleshoot his way through nearly 100 headbands over the course of a couple weeks with some remote help from the students, Freedman and others.
After Englert started the project, he learned that he wasn’t alone: Teachers and students throughout his school system have been using 3D printers to create various kinds of personal protective equipment for local health care workers. He said the project has given him a sense of satisfaction during the stress of the pandemic and the challenging transition to online learning. He now hopes to scale up production.
“There’s this vulnerability that people are feeling, especially older people like myself, and the students feel it too,” Englert said. “This a time to reflect on what’s important, and this [project] is important.”
While she waited for Englert to finish his batch of headbands, Anderson collected rubber bands and transparency sheets. On April 23, Anderson and Englert brought the complete set of components to SCCA, where they handed them off to clinic staff.
SCCA staff wear the face shields, on top of a mask over their nose and mouth, when they care for patients who have symptoms of a respiratory illness or who could have COVID-19, said Dr. Steve Pergam, a Fred Hutch scientist and the medical director of infection prevention at SCCA. The face shield protects the wearer’s eyes from any virus-filled droplets the patient might emit, and it protects the mask, helping it last longer, he explained.
“It’s really beautiful if you think about this: When clinical staff take off the face shield made by these students, they then use alcohol sanitizer that’s been made by one of the distilleries in town to wipe it off, sterilize it. And then the next person comes in and puts it on and sees another patient,” Pergam said. He added that he’s found Anderson’s uncle’s design to be impressively durable.
Most of all, he said, he was moved by how Anderson, Englert and their school community came together to help — and how many others in Seattle have, too, in their own ways.
“People are saying, how can we help our frontline medical staff? And that’s really, unbelievably encouraging for us. It’s very valuable,” Pergam said. “And I’m really humbled that somebody would think of us at all.”
— By Susan Keown
Jennifer Macabeo felt a sense of helplessness as COVID-19 began to make its presence known around Seattle.
“I realized that I needed to stay busy when I’m not working and find a way to help my friends and family who are working on the front lines, or at high risk,” said Macabeo, a systems administrator with the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service, which is based at Fred Hutch.
So, she decided to make masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans wear cloth face coverings in public places where it’s hard to stay 6 feet from other people. A person who’s infected may not have symptoms, and experts think that they’re less likely to spread the virus when they’re wearing a cloth covering over their nose and mouth. A person wearing a mask is also less likely to touch their own face, which may keep them safer as well. (The CDC emphasizes that mask-wearing is a supplement, not a replacement, for physical distancing, hand hygiene and other important COVID-19 prevention practices.)
Macabeo’s sewing skills are basic. “I can sew in a straight line. Pillows and curtains, and that’s about it,” she said. Fortunately, that’s enough for face masks. The CDC’s mask-making instructions offer patterns for people with different levels of sewing skills, even none at all.
Macabeo’s sewn about 200 masks since the end of March, about half of which so far have gone to Fred Hutch employees. She can now make one in 10 to 15 minutes.
“Once I got going, it was amazing how many people wanted to support this, with fabric and supply donations, funds for materials, help with production and packaging,” Macabeo said.
“I’m hoping to get to 500 and then maybe I can take a break and do something else,” she said. “Like organize my pantry or something.”
— By Susan Keown
With schools closed and online learning the norm, Stephanie “Stevie” Elliott knew home schooling required personal computers and not all families would have them. So, she launched a laptop drive for kids in need, asking Fred Hutch, SCCA and University of Washington employees to join her effort.
“I knew some communities would be hit harder with what’s going on,” she said. “I had an extra laptop and wanted to see if anybody could get any use out of it. So, I posted an ad in one of those Buy Nothing pages on Facebook and probably got 30 responses in the first hour.”
Elliott felt bad for those she wasn’t able to help, so she put another post on the Hutch’s intranet marketplace, “Fredslist,” and got a few more donations. Altogether, she was able to match five families with used laptops, including her own device, which went to a family in Puyallup, Washington, with two young children.
Indeed, a recent report in the Seattle Times highlighted the ongoing need for devices in the Seattle school district, particularly within low-income families where children are falling behind fast.
“So many don’t have what others have,” Elliott said. “I talked to a woman who had nine kids, but not one computer. I’ve spread the word, but donations seem to have been hard to come by. I would love to get more laptops to people who need them.”
Elliott, who works at the SCCA’s pharmacy, said she’s happy to continue to accept donations and matchmake laptops with families in need.
“I’m also tech-savvy enough to wipe hard drives and reset computers for people if they’re concerned about personal information,” she said.
Want to contribute your used laptop to the cause? Email Elliott or contact the Seattle School District.
— By Diane Mapes
These three employees aren’t alone in the Hutch community. There’s the Fred Hutch Science Education & Training Program, whose team members dropped off a trunk-full of surplus gloves and other supplies at a local hospital. And the employees who have posted on Fredslist offering their services as errand-runners or babysitters for essential staff. And there are the many employees who’ve volunteered for years and continue to do so as best they can while maintaining physical distancing.
Pergam, the SCCA infection-control doctor, said it’s been heartening to see all the ways, big and small, Seattle community members have mobilized to support each other at this challenging time.
“There’s a certain pride, I think, in how Seattle has handled this. I think probably more than most other places, we've really come together around this,” he said.
Inspired to help? Here are some ways to get involved:
Susan Keown is an associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sejkeown.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.