COLORADO SPRINGS — Hopefully right now, we are all doing what we can to make the world a better place. It could be staying at home, or making sure to social distance and wash our hands frequently. It could also be doing things for other people like wearing a mask when we are in public.
For one Colorado Springs 8th-grader, it’s all of those things and more. What began as a family project has now taken hold across many parts of the country. It’s not unique that Aleena Khan is sewing handmade masks for others, but what is unique about her homemade masks is how effective they are because of what they are made of.
It all started weeks ago when Aleena overheard her parents, who are both surgeons, talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Tiffany Willard is a trauma surgeon at UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs and is Aleena’s mom. Dr. Willard says, “My husband and I were just sitting there chatting about the needs at the hospital and where it could all go. We weren't sure and there was a lot of uncertainty. We were talking about the need for PPE (personal protective equipment) and masks, and Aleena picked up on that conversation and took it upon herself to try to create something that was adequate for safety.”
Aleena says, “School was canceled the next day and because of social distancing, there wasn’t much I could do outside, so I decided to make high-quality masks using hospital-grade materials my mom has for when she teaches.”
For years, Dr. Willard has been teaching a hands-on class across Colorado Springs to 5th-graders, educating them about trauma situations and the importance of making good choices. Because of those classes, she’s made a habit of stockpiling spare medical materials to use with students.
Dr Willard explains, “This material normally just gets thrown away. It's the material that covers the surgical bins, to keep what is in them sterile. It's waterproof and air-tight and it stores the material on the shelves for as long as needed. I have always saved these materials so that I could use them to teach the trauma classes.”
Dr. Willard says the masks Aleena makes can be sterilized in an autoclave (and reused). “They do not replace an N-95 mask,’ she stressed, “because they're not sealed around your skin but in terms of permeability to a normal surgical mask they are equivalent.”
When Dr. Willard saw the amazing work Aleena was producing, she posted it on a Facebook group she’s in with physician moms across the country. “I posted it that night, about how proud I was of her along with some pictures and a video. Within 24 hours there were 300 comments and likes and inquiries asking how to make them and what did we use.”
After that, Aleena says the mask-making took off. “People asked us to make a video on how to make the masks and after a while they asked us if we can make them for them. We have gotten orders from Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Ohio and a lot of places in Colorado.”
Dr. Willard says, “I know that they've started making these masks and New Mexico, California, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and apparently Florida.”
Aleena is thrilled and flattered. “The fact that people in other states were recognizing this has been really cool. We have probably made 300 to 400 masks now and we are still making 100 masks for Catholic Charities. I plan to keep doing this as long as I can.”
Aleena says she is getting faster at making the masks, and hasn’t done it all on her own. “It takes 3 to 5 minutes to make one, and we can make about 25 in about an hour. Me and my friends Gemma and Lola spend 2 to 4 hours a day making masks. Obviously, we maintain social distancing so it's safe but without them and my parents I don't think I would have been able to do it all by myself.”
Aleena says this project began out of love and concern for her parents and her grandma. “My grandma was hospitalized because of COVID-19. She's about six weeks out now, and has had a very hard recovery. The way (COVID-19) affected her and my whole family, I just wanted to make sure that other people hopefully won't have to have to deal with that, or experience the same thing my family did.”
Dr. Willard said: “I'm just proud of her. I'm proud of her for recognizing the seriousness of coronavirus and its ability to spread so easily. And I'm proud of her putting other people before herself. I think it’s hard for a teenager to sit there and do things for other people without getting anything in return because she recognizes other people can't do it for themselves. ”
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