Mercer Island volunteers provide 10,000 PPE kits to healthcare workers

August 10, 2020 | by Sophia Maggio

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Dr. Evelyn Fang, Mercer Island resident and “Help a Hero!” volunteer, wearing PPE donated by the “Help a Hero!” Mercer Island Hub in her clinic. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of “helpers,” mostly from around the greater Seattle area, coalesced around their desire to do something about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare providers in Washington State. They also shared a commonality of owning 3D printers and decided to coordinate their 3D printing abilities to fill the urgent need for PPE. 

Using their 3D printers to print face shield frames, the printers formed the Washington State 3D Face Shield Hub as a stop-gap solution to the well-known PPE shortage across the country. Yet even as the group increased its PPE production, the PPE parts still needed to be sterilized and delivered to frontline workers. 

Photo courtesy Healthcare Hero

Several community members on Mercer Island read the story of their efforts on Facebook and decided to join in to bridge the gap between PPE production, sanitation, and delivery. Through social media and word-of-mouth, and under the leadership of long-time Mercer Island resident Deb Hendrickson, the group officially organized to form the “Help a Hero!” Mercer Island Hub. At its core, the group aimed to connect PPE makers with cleaners to carefully sterilize the PPE, as well as drivers to deliver the PPE throughout the Puget Sound area. 

An entirely grassroots effort, the local “Help a Hero!” group grew from a handful of galvanized individuals to more than 70 local volunteers at its peak. Eventually the group would process 10,000 PPE kits, which were donated to dozens of hospitals, clinics, COVID-19 testing centers, senior living facilities, pharmacies, and private healthcare practices throughout the Seattle area and Washington state.

Photo courtesy Healthcare Heroes

Hendrickson, the volunteer coordinator of the “Help a Hero!” Mercer Island Hub, attributes the success of the group to the willingness, energy, and generosity of the small-yet-mighty group. Local “Help a Hero!” volunteers served in one of three main roles: “Makers,” “Cleaners,” and “Road Warriors.”

Makers produced the face shield frames with 3D printers in their homes. Cleaners followed a disinfection protocol for the frames outlined in the Lancet, a highly respected medical publication. Then they carefully smoothed any rough edges on the frames by sanding, filing, or using a heat gun. Road Warriors drove countless miles to pick up the PPE from the Makers who printed them and then delivered the PPE to the disinfection and quality control sites (cleaning stations) in Sumner, Federal Way, and Mercer Island. The Road Warriors also transported the PPE to the final “Kitting Site” in Federal Way, where all items were assembled into kits and delivered to frontline healthcare heroes across Washington State.  

PPE frame soaking in a disinfecting bleach solution. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson

In early May, the group partnered with Redeemer Lutheran Church on Mercer Island to provide a community cleaning station and to improve the efficiency of the cleaning process. Among the Mercer Island organizations that supported their work, Hendrickson praised Redeemer as an “MVP” of the “Help a Hero!” Mercer Island Hub.

The church opened up its Fellowship Hall for volunteers interested in cleaning PPE but who lacked the space and/or resources to do so at home. On each assigned day, one sheltered-at-home-together family or household was allowed into the Fellowship Hall. These volunteers, in masks and gloves, worked in four-hour shifts to prepare the PPE. First, they disinfected the PPE in a bleach solution and hung them on lines for air-drying overnight. Then they used heat guns, sandpaper, X-Acto knives, and files to remove any imperfections on the PPE which could cut through medical gloves or be uncomfortable to the healthcare workers. Finally, they assembled the prepared PPE into marked bags for pick up and delivery to the last processing stage in Federal Way, where it was kitted and delivered to the healthcare workers.

Hanging disinfected PPE to dry. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson.

MI-FAB also outlined safety precautions for Road Warriors, who carefully separated PPE containers in the backs of their vehicles and performed contactless PPE pick-up and drop-off. Hendrickson herself received PPE at her home to count inventory; later, she would go out in a mask and gloves, retrieve the items, and record their tracking numbers before leaving them for the next Road Warrior. Whether making, cleaning, or transporting PPE, “every volunteer was absolutely committed to making a difference while being safe and protecting each other,” Hendrickson says. 

PPE cleaning and processing supplies donated by the Mercer Island community. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson

The sheer volume of PPE proved to be a challenge, albeit a positive one. Hendrickson and the Road Warriors used tracking numbers to help account for each PPE order, while a “Makers2Medics” phone app – devised by volunteers with strong technical skills – recorded where and when the PPE needed to be transported.

Morrison Family volunteers. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson

Other individuals and organizations throughout the island invested their skills, energy, and newfound spare time into the local “Help a Hero!” effort. The stand-out volunteers of the Mercer Island “Help a Hero!” group included Gail Morrison and Cubba Reese, who coordinated the cleaning station at Redeemer Lutheran Church, and Jennifer Selby and Deb Slivinsky, who coordinated volunteers with at-home PPE cleaning stations.

In addition to these outstanding individuals, all four of Mercer Island’s Scouts BSA troops – three Boy Troops and one Girl Troop – volunteered as “cleaners,” and a few scouting families printed 3D frames as “makers.” The Mercer Island Chapter of the National League of Young Men volunteered to help score thousands of transparency sheets, which custom fit a unique set of PPE shield frames that didn’t work with the typical transparency sheet dimension for PPE. One family even spent four full days at Redeemer Church cleaning and preparing PPE parts. Hendrickson said it was affirming and gratifying to “see so many families and organizations on Mercer Island come together to make this happen.”

Sirianni Family volunteers. Photo courtesy Deb Hendrickson

Despite the time and physical distance between making, cleaning, and delivering the PPE, “Help a Hero!” volunteers could see the palpable impact of each kit on the safety and well-being of healthcare workers. The local team included several healthcare professionals who directly experienced the need for PPE. Many of them expressed gratitude “for the support coming from community members all over the island, as well as having a chance to play a hands-on role themselves,” Hendrickson says. 

Photo courtesy Healthcare Hero

By the completion of the project, the small cross-section of Mercer Island volunteers processed 10,000 PPE components. This was an important contribution to the final tally of more than 70,000 PPE kits produced overall by the larger Federal Way hub, which was facilitated by another 600 volunteers across Puget Sound. The final number of kits exceeded Hendrickson’s expectations for the group, which “grew so fast that it became bigger and more complex” than she had ever anticipated. Hendrickson also noted that the “Help A Hero!” Mercer Island Hub “could not have done a fraction of our 10,000 donated PPE” without the generous support of Redeemer Church. The volunteers officially concluded their efforts in late June when the normal supply chain was able to meet the statewide demand for PPE.

From its earliest conception, the Mercer Island “Help a Hero!” volunteer group expanded from the philosophy that many hands make light work. “People from different walks of life came together for this – people meeting for the first time over Zoom or email. Everyone really rallied,” Hendrickson said. “It was an incredible representation of a sense of community and purpose.”