Kim Wertheimer understands the fear the nurses are feeling at hospitals across the world.
She has experienced the same anxiety as countless other medical professionals in recent days. Ms. Wertheimer has been overcome with exhaustion due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though through it all has seen the public’s willingness to strive for the greater good.
Ms. Wertheimer, who graduated from Westmont College in 2012, has been a registered nurse for more than five years. She currently resides in Detroit, Mich., and works as a nurse in a nearby hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
While she personally has not been on the front lines treating coronavirus patients, she has noticed that nurses, and some hospitals, are facing shortages when it comes to personal protective equipment. Some healthcare workers are being forced to reuse items such as gloves, masks or gowns — something Ms. Wertheimer said goes against anything she’d been taught in nursing school.
When a friend recently offered to sew a mask, Ms. Wertheimer realized she could help protect those working to prevent the spread of the novel virus. She posted the concept on her Instagram account, and within two days had received an outpouring of support and monetary donations, despite not asking for funds.
“Requests started coming in from nurses in New York, from nurses in Connecticut, from nurses from Wisconsin,” Ms. Wertheimer told the News-Press. “I really wanted to keep it local to Detroit because of our needs, but my heart was breaking (for) the nurses that I was talking with all over the country.”
With the unexpected funding, Ms. Wertheimer has been able to ship out boxes of masks as the requests came through and “Masks on a Mission” was born.
She then reached out to Shannon Balram, director of residence life at Westmont. Ms. Balram quickly realized how big of a need that Ms. Wertheimer was fulfilling and knew right away how the charitable efforts would benefit local healthcare facilities.
“We can start caring for our neighbors while we’re sheltering in place,” Ms. Balram explained. “There’s no reason for us just to sit around, we can do something. For me, I was just really thankful for Kim’s leadership in that and I felt like we could do that in Santa Barbara.”
Each mask comes with a hand-written note from a stranger. Understanding that not everyone can donate funds due to widespread closures, Ms. Wertheimer said that even those who can’t so (which is a skill she has yet to attain), they can still make a difference by penning a personal message.
“Honestly the notes that we’ve got from people all over the country have moved me to tears with the way that they are being kind to their neighbors that they don’t even know,” she said.
As the need for PPE continues to grow, Ms. Wertheimer hopes that Masks on a Mission will expand. Ms. Balram recently paired with a local sewer and the duo put up $200 to buy extra supplies. With the average price of masks around $1 each, Ms. Balram said they hope to have the first 200 ready to be donated to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in early April.
“The hope is that by giving those masks to Cottage, they can take all the necessary PPE and put it into the COVID units,” she said, adding that they’ve also committed to send 15 masks to San Francisco nurses in need.
“I would love to see us be able to meet the need, but some of that is going to be about how we can get access to supplies,” Ms. Balram said. “Right now, we’re committed to try and make as many masks as we can.”
Ms. Wertheimer said that the country has yet to reach its peak in terms of positive coronavirus cases and equipment shortages have become all too frequent. Initially, some hospitals in Michigan advised against the use of homemade masks. Just days later, nurses were told to do what would make them feel safe.
These shortages just aren’t at hospitals, she added.
“I know a lot of nursing care facilities that are not getting the masks and the stuff they usually get because it’s being re-routed to the hospitals — and for good reason,” she said. “But hey, those are still compromised people at those nursing care facilities who still possibly have PICC lines in. The nurses at the facility still need to be able to wear their masks. I got (requests from) some cancer nurses at cancer facilities whose stuff is getting rerouted as well to the hospitals, but they still need PPE.”
Ms. Wertheimer expected friends and family to rally around the idea and serve certain local groups, but never anticipated having so many people around the country reach out — whether it be requesting assistance or lending a helping hand.
“It means that people want to go beyond their home and want to see beyond their family,” she said. “Help the greater need. It shows, to me, that people want to help but they haven’t figured out yet how to help when they have to shelter in place.
“It also, as a nurse and in my nurse heart, it just makes me swell with so much encouragement that people are really cheering us on and rooting us all on, which is why we continue to show up every single day. Despite our fear, despite our anxiety, we show up because that’s what is needed.”