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Thimble Army helps workers on pandemic’s frontlines

CU Dental volunteers organize the making of masks


“Sew with love” is the slogan of the Thimble Army, a group of CU Dental students who have dedicated their free time away from remote learning to sewing masks for local healthcare workers.


The Thimble Army, along with staff members at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, are doing their part to make up for the national shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE).

 

Lauren Lustig (DDS ’21) and Tram Nguyen (DDS ’22) formed the student-led group.  

 

“Our hearts broke seeing the burnout and the heavy workload of our fellow medical professionals and we felt the need to support them somehow,” Nguyen says.

 

In less than three weeks, the group has made 800 masks that have gone to those on the frontlines at National Jewish Health, Rose Medical Center, Children’s Hospital Colorado and Craig Hospital. They also have collected and purchased certified personal protection equipment (PPE), donating 1,000 exam gloves. 

 

Shortly after the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, Lustig thought she could organize her fellow dental students with volunteer opportunities such as donating blood or delivering food to people with disabilities or seniors.  

 

“We individually started focusing on different ways to help, but ultimately, merged our talents for a common mission,” Lustig says.

 

That’s when Nguyen mentioned piggybacking off her efforts to organize a sewing circle at church to make masks.  

 

“It’s rather ironic, as I do not sew at all,” says Lustig. Instead, she has focused on the “business” side—raising money for material, organizing volunteers and picking up and delivering materials and masks.

 

The pair created a Facebook page to solicit additional help. They heard from dozens of people who didn’t know how to sew but still wanted to help. To date, they have also raised $1,000 of their $3,000 goal on their GoFundMe page.

 

“My heart is full, and it makes me realize that it’s such a blessing to live in a beautiful community that strives to give back and supports one another,” Nguyen says.

 

The members of the group have varying experiences—one volunteer made 50 masks in a day while Nguyen is a beginner. She’s learned in part so she can make sure masks follow proper guidelines of being made with multiple layers of fabric and by fitting snugly of fitting on the user’s face.    

 

“Amidst all the chaos, many touching moments and memories have been made since we started this project. Our seamstresses have sacrificed so much of their time and efforts,” Nguyen says.

 

Early in the crisis, CU Dental donated boxes filled with masks, gowns, gloves and other needed PPE. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis estimated the state health agencies needed 70,000 masks per day.

 

Since the Thimble Army formed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health officials expanded their recommendations. The CDC suggests everyone wear a mask while in public places where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

 

While not part of the student group, Marci Colb, CU Dental’s International Student Program manager, decided this public health crisis was the perfect time to break out her boxes of fabric.

 

Colb, who started sewing when she was six years old, had yards of 100 percent cotton fabric. Between cutting out the material and stitching, she estimates it takes about 15 minutes to create one mask—she’s already made more than a hundred masks.

 

“It makes me feel good to do it,” Colb says. “And most importantly, it keeps my mind off of what’s happening in the world.”

 

Colb is making sure her masks are used by those in need, including a friend whose child has a compromised immune system. She’s also given masks to workers at a grocery store and two restaurants in her neighborhood plus others throughout the CU Anschutz community.

 

One such recipient is nurse Jeremy Cohen, who is in his final year of the CU College of Nursing’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, which focuses on psychiatric mental health. Cohen works at a local hospice while dividing his time between his clinical placements at an addiction rehabilitation center and the Colorado School of the Mines.

 

“The homemade masks reduce the stress of working with active COVID-19 patients,” Cohen says. “I don’t have to worry about cleaning the mask as often or risk having it be my only one to reuse over and over again.”

 

The CDC recommends people should frequently wash their masks depending on how often they are worn.

 

As a former intensive care unit (ICU) nurse, Cohen is familiar with patients who are critically ill. “As frightful as it may be to be exposed to the environment, the acts performed for others and the relationships that are built with those patients are priceless and far outweighs the risks,” he says.

 

“I would like to thank those who have the skills and the ingenuity to take this task upon themselves and think of the needs of others during this trying time,” Cohen says.

 

 

By John Brunelli, communications manager. Published April 14, 2020

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