They Asked for Masks, so We Delivered!

When I left Brown’s campus on March 15th, the future I was expecting was far different than what ensued. I was under the naive, millennial impression that my next few weeks would be like an extended summer vacation: gatherings with high school friends, enjoying spring New York City weather in Central Park, and maybe even some drives upstate to visit college friends. This assumption was quickly debunked upon my arrival home to my family. Selfishly, I was only able to wrap my head around the gravity of the situation once I realized just how immediately and personally I would be affected by this ruthless virus.

My dad is a doctor at a main New York City hospital working in the COVID-19 ICUs. His first few days on the frontlines felt like weeks for my family. I think the hardest part for me was that it felt like there was nothing to do to help him or his colleagues. All I could do was sit at home and hope that he would come home from the day without a cough.

Not only was he at constant risk of contracting corona, but he was also virtually completely unprotected due to the lack of PPE in the hospital. When this shortage was brought to our attention, my mother sprung into action, and I was right there behind her! We started by reaching out to friends and relatives to see if, by some miracle, they happened to have extra N95 masks to spare. This wasn’t a particularly fruitful route, but through a few degrees of separation, it led us to my cousin’s friend’s father, a generous man living in Scarsdale, New York, who had an extensive network of friends with personal supplies or access to masks.

We were so excited. “These N95s are like gold!” was a line that my mom exclaimed about every half hour. It truly felt like we had hit the jackpot! My mom and I packed our bags with Purell and Clorox spray and made the 45 minute trip up to our first pickup in Greenwich, Connecticut. We even put a plastic wall up between the front of the car and the trunk, where the masks would go, to ensure extra protection. We were cautious and meticulous at the pick up, maintaining a social distance of at least six feet, and disinfecting each box of masks multiple times over.

I was excited to drop them off at the hospital, not only because of the immediate difference it felt like we were making, but also because it meant that I would get a glimpse of my dad, who has been quarantining separately from the rest of my family. He met us at the entrance of the hospital with a few of his colleagues to retrieve the goods. They looked tired and stressed, but full of adrenaline. I’ll never forget the look of gratitude on their faces when we pulled the boxes out of the trunk of our car. After expressing their thanks to us (the irony!), they retreated into the hospital, back into the warzone. But at least now, they had some more protection.

These pickups and drop offs would become our life for the next few weeks. With the help of our wonderful friend in Scarsdale, we have developed an ever-growing network of connections in both the US and China who have been providing us with PPE. Our 45 minute drives soon turned into 5 hour outings multiple days per week. Sometimes we hit three different states in a single day! At this point, we have mastered our box sterilizing technique, which is bordering on obsessive-compulsive at this point. We fill our time in the car fighting over the radio station, munching on snacks, disinfecting our hands like lunatics, and making sure our little dog, Winston, is comfortable on my lap.

As the word spread that we were on the hunt for N95s, we started getting messages from people in China who had PPE to ship to us from abroad. Huge packages began arriving at our apartment with a frequency that we could hardly keep up with! The office in our apartment was converted into a mask storage unit, where we keep the packages before transporting them to the hospital. The boxes often have words of encouragement for our healthcare workers posted on them: “You are the best! You are the hero! Fighting! We are all with you!” Sometimes the notes are enough to bring us to tears. It is a rare thing nowadays to see such a unanimous display of cooperation and support. 

Since our little project began, we have collected 6,500 N95 masks, 12,000 surgical masks, and 750 face shields. In the grand scheme of things, I know it’s not much. But if it makes even one single difference in the life of one of our frontline heroes, my dad included, it would be more than enough for us.