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Community volunteers sew masks to protect Massey medical workers from COVID-19

May 20, 2020


In mid-March as confirmed COVID-19 cases began spreading across the Richmond area, VCU Massey Cancer Center physician-researcher Douglas Arthur, M.D., shared with his wife, Shelly, his concerns about the nationwide shortage of face masks for health care workers and the risk of coronavirus exposure that his medical teams were facing. He was particularly worried about radiation therapists, whose jobs necessitate direct and close contact with patients.

Shelly saw that VCU Health had posted for employees a pattern for hand making face masks, and concerned about her husband and his medical staff, she immediately went to work using that pattern to sew face masks for him and his department.

“In this pandemic, there is a sense of loss of control. I just wanted to do something that made me feel like I’m taking some control,” said Shelly, who is also a longtime supporter of and volunteer at Massey Cancer Center, where she serves on the Community Advisory Board. “Making and giving masks was my way of fighting back and doing something about the pandemic.”

"Initially, there was a lot of anxiety among our radiation therapists, who have to work in face-to-face contact with patients throughout the day,” explained Doug, who is the chair and professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Florence and Hyman Meyers Endowed Chair in Radiation Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “The masks that Shelly made for them really helped alleviate that anxiety.”

After making masks for the entire Radiation Oncology team, Shelly also made them for Massey’s valet parking staff, knowing they too were at high risk of exposure with the large numbers of people and cars they come into contact with every day.

Then seeing the urgent need for hundreds of masks to protect all of the medical teams at Massey Cancer Center, Shelly enlisted the help of her mother, Joyce Dieter, and fellow Massey Advisory Board member, supporter and volunteer, Becky Massey, to help sew masks.

Becky called other Massey Advisory Board members and cancer center volunteers to get more people involved. Some volunteers, like Terrell Harrigan and Judy Turbeville, recruited their daughters, sisters and networks, such as the Tuckahoe Women’s Club, to help. Word spread to more than a dozen women, who all began making masks, donating materials or sourcing materials, which were quickly becoming hard to find, especially elastic.

“It’s about the community caring about our front line health care workers,” Becky said of the effort.

Wearing the masks that Shelly made for them, Massey’s Radiation Oncology team took a series of photos, including the above picture, of them holding thank you notes for Shelly that they sent to her to show their appreciation.

In little time, more than a thousand masks were made and donated, and the first batch of masks was delivered to Massey in the third week of March. Their hand made masks are now at every Massey Cancer Center clinic, including at VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill. They continue to make and donate masks today.

“Knowing that our community is concerned about our safety and that they are donating time, effort and money to help protect us is an incredible feeling,” said Theresa Melville, MS, RN, OCN, nursing director for ambulatory oncology. “Our care teams are so thankful for the generosity and thoughtfulness of these mask makers.”

After sewing the masks, they launder them and place them in individual quart-size plastic bags to ensure they stay clean. They’ve even gone out of their way to customize masks for Massey medical team members who they know, sewing their names on the masks and using fabric with fun patterns, such as using fabric with mathematical equations to the delight of medical physicists.

Over time, they have improvised to make the masks fit better over the nose, embedding pipe cleaners or wired ribbon into the masks. They are also using water repellant, two-ply, tightly woven cotton to provide the best protection and comfort.

After reading a medical journal article about how surgical sterile wrap, in which all surgical instruments come wrapped, is antimicrobial, water resistant and provides 99 percent filtration, Doug brought some home from the hospital before it was discarded. Shelly and another volunteer, Cely Coleman, began recycling the wrap by laundering it and making masks with the wrap on the inside and cotton on the outside.

Shelly said her mother has single handedly made several hundred masks. “She is shut in, so making masks has been something good for her to do. It helps her feel connected to the community,” Shelly said.

Hand sewn masks
More than a thousand masks were handmade and donated to Massey’s medical teams.

Beyond Massey, Becky also wanted to be sure that all health care workers at VCU Health were protected. She and Sarah Cossé, another member of the Massey Advisory Board, called local businesses to get them involved with supplying masks to the health system. Alton Lane has donated cloth and N95 masks. Shockoe Atelier has cut medical-grade masks and partnered with Ledbury to sew them. Northeast Construction Inc. donated medical-grade masks with more on the way. NewMarket has delivered various supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment). Janie Molster Designs has donated  waterproof cloth masks.

Shelly has even been making masks for delivery drivers. She set a basket out on her front porch with masks and a note letting drivers know that the masks are for them to take.

Shelly has used her sewing machines so much that she’s blown the motor out on two of them, and Becky said she’s broken more needles than she can count, but the duo plan to keep making masks as long as they are needed.

“It’s an opportunity for us to give back and a vital and important way for us to do so,” said Becky.

VCU Massey Cancer Center medical team members are deeply grateful for the outpouring of community support. Special thanks go to the following individuals and businesses and many others not listed that have generously helped provide masks and other PPE to Massey Cancer Center and VCU Health:

Alton Lane

Shelly Arthur

Brenda Bailey

Marianna Broaddus

Cely Coleman

Sarah Cossé

Joyce Dieter

Martha Fearnow

Mary Gill

Terrell Harrigan and daughters

Mary Mac Harris

Janie Molster Designs

Janet Kay


Becky Massey


Northeast Construction Inc.

Jane Pearson

Shockoe Atelier

Tuckahoe Women’s Club

Judy Turbeville

Written by: Jenny Owen

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