Valley View Hospital nurses prepare for COVID-19 with sewing machines

Wendy Tennis,left, and Jean Winkler work to prepare masks for the final sewing steps at Valley View Hospital on Thursday morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

After elective surgeries were canceled Monday at Valley View Hospital for the foreseeable future, two operating room nurses had some downtime.

Nurses Brady Heuer and Kristen Dirksen knew personal protective equipment would be crucial to keeping medical staff safe during likely exposure to the new coronavirus. They also knew it would be in short supply. So, they came up with an idea.

 “We were sitting there and thinking, wait a minute, this item that we use on a daily basis is readily available to us, how can we use this?” Heuer said.

That item was blue wrap cloth used in operating rooms to protect sterilized surgical tools from bacteria and airborne contaminants before surgery.

“Brady and Kristen’s innovation is absolutely remarkable. These are the kinds of ideas that will carry us forward in the care of our patients.” —Dr. Murphy, Valley View CEO

Jo Bershenyi sews together a mask near the end of the assembly line in the new “sewing room” at Valley View Hospital on Thursday morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“It was a light-bulb-went-off moment, and we got excited,” Heuer said.

They took the idea to their managers, and it gained traction. When it came before the incident command team, it was like a ray of hope.

“It was just this bright spot in what has been kind of a challenging time,” Valley View Hospital spokeswoman Stacey Gavrell said.

Coronavirus coming

“We’re definitely in the mitigation phase, so we’re expecting an influx of patients,” Gavrell said.

Valley View has not yet treated any COVID-19 patients.

Garfield County has three confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but between the more advanced outbreaks in Pitkin and Eagle counties and the virtual certainty of community spread, it’s likely only a matter of time before hospital beds are needed to care for patients with the severe respiratory ailments caused by the disease.

When that happens, the N95 respirator, which seal the nose and mouth of the wearer from all bacteria and contaminants, will be critical in helping health care workers avoid infection.

The problem is that protective equipment like N95 is running out globally because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Places like Seattle, where the pandemic has hit hospitals hard, is suffering from the shortage and scrambling for solutions.

A mask for the masks

The blue masks aren’t a replacement for the N95, but they will ensure that Valley View’s stockpile last longer.

A mask starts to form near the end of the assembly line.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Wendy Tennis pins two pieces of a mask together to be sent further on down the assembly line at Valley View on Thursday.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The N95 is a disposable mask that in light of the recent shortage may be re-used a limited number of times, according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

But the N95 must be thrown away if it gets dirty, or comes into contact with any bodily fluids, and that’s where the blue come in.

The blue Valley View masks will be worn over the N95 as an added barrier to allow staff to re-use the N95 up to five times, per Valley View policy.

Jean Winkler pins two pieces of a mask together to continue on down the assembly line at Valley View on Thursday.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“It extends the life of those masks,” Billington said.

Since the blue wrap material is federally rated to protect surgical tools when sterilized, it made sense to use it as a mask for the critical masks. And Valley View has plenty of the blue material — enough for 16,000 hospital-made masks, Billington estimates.

“We have a lot of this, and they said, ‘Why couldn’t we make these into masks, which would do the same thing on a human being, as far as exposing them to air particulates?’” Billington said.

Sewing together

It didn’t take long for the mask production idea to attract willing workers.

After getting approval for the idea from hospital administrators, Heuer and Dirksen put together a prototype, and by Wednesday, after three trips to Walmart to buy sewing machines and supplies (“we cleared them out,” Heuer said), they went into production in one of hospital’s conference rooms.

The COVID-19 precautions at Valley View, including canceled elective surgeries and cessation of non-essential services, meant many hospital staff, medical-related or not, had less to do this week.

“Maybe their roles and responsibilities have shifted, and now they’re part of the sewing center,” Gavrell said.

Wendy Tennis pins two pieces of a masks together to be sent further on down the assembly line at Valley View on Thursday.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Nurses, doctors and therapists are now sewing masks alongside the hospital librarian, maintenance workers and an athletic trainer.

On Wednesday, plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Jennifer Butterfield, with no patients to serve, also joined the mask production.

For Butterfield and others at the hospital, COVID-19 preparedness has been the topic of conversation for weeks.

“We’re just trying to get ready now, with whatever means we come up with, to deal with the onslaught when it comes,” Butterfield said.

To Butterfield, the mask making became a meaningful way to contribute in an uncertain time.

“We have this desperate desire to help. We have to help, it’s in our DNA, and I think more than anything people are so excited to be able to have something to fight this, and to be able to contribute,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield was not in the least surprised about the genesis of the idea.

“It’s always the nurses in times of trouble that troubleshoot, and try to make something out of nothing,” Butterfield said.

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