Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.
Duct tape and heavy-duty plastic are the latest tools being used by local residents to protect healthcare providers and first responders as they care for individuals battling COVID-19.
Barb Galonsky, a Battle Creek resident, was the first local volunteer with the Angels Wear Gowns project which began on April 1 in southeast Michigan and is growing into a statewide project. She has since been reaching out via social media to get others involved in the work.
Galonsky, who has lived in Battle Creek for 18 years and is married to a Family Medicine physician, says she learned about the organization through a sister-in-law in Grand Rapids who is making much-needed face masks.
Unlike masks and other Personal Protection Equipment that requires fabric, thread, and the ability to sew, the gowns made by Galonsky and others involve 4 mil plastic and duct tape. A template is used to cut the plastic to form the gowns that are put together with duct tape.
Barb Galonsky cuts out ann isolation gown.
“It takes space to lay out and cut the plastic, but no technical talent,” Galonsky says. “It requires a pair of scissors and the ability to use duct tape.”
Robyn Staebler, the founder of Angels Wear Gowns, says she came up with the idea after she and her husband realized the impending need for PPE and noticed that people and businesses were making face masks and face shields, but not really focusing on the production of gowns. Staebler, who lives in Gregory, says she approached the Chelsea Lumber Company which donated two rolls of Tyvek and enough duct tape to make the first gowns.
“We created a pattern from a surgical gown we had used for Halloween costumes,” Staebler says.
When the Chelsea Lumber Company was required to close in compliance with state-mandated stay-at-home orders, Staebler went to a Lowe’s store in Ann Arbor which donated 20 boxes of the 4-mil plastic and 20 rolls of duct tape. Forty-seven Lowe’s stores, mostly on the east side of the state, are now providing the supplies on a continuous basis.
Since April 1 more than 250 volunteers have so far made more than 13,000 gowns. The gowns were donated throughout Detroit and the southeast Michigan area which is the area most impacted statewide by COVID-19.
Finished gowns have been donated to more than 125 hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement, first responders, jails, and homeless shelters. Staebler says she has been contacted by a hospital and a major nursing home in Los Angeles which have been experiencing a shortage of isolation gowns and has sent the gown template to them. She's also given the template to organizations in Chicago that want to start making the gowns.
Barb Galonsky cuts out an isolation gown from plastic from Lowe’s.
On the west side of Michigan, Galonsky says requests for Personal Protection Equipment go to the Find the Helpers.US
website. She says this is a Facebook site where medical providers can request PPE and individuals who want to fulfill specific requests, such as face masks, can find out what they can do to help out.
“Angels Wear Gowns coordinates their efforts through the Find the Helpers website,” Galonsky says, adding that, “This is how the need is being met.”
Galonsky, with the help of six neighbors in her Minges Brook neighborhood, has already made more than 400 gowns.
Doris McDevitt is one of the neighbors who responded to Galonsky’s request for volunteers. She lives across the street from Galonsky and her husband and says they’re, “great neighbors and passionate about what they do.”
McDevitt learned how to make the gowns after watching a tutorial on the Angels Wear Gowns Facebook page. She began helping out last week and with face masks on, she and Galonsky cut and taped in an enclosed porch at Galonsky’s home.
“The hardest part of doing this is when you lay out the pattern and are making two gowns at once,” McDevitt says. “To me, every little small thing that you can do is a great gift of love.”
Barb Galonsky uses duct tape for the armpit of an isolation
Galonsky says 100 feet of plastic will make 24 gowns which she has been able to complete in about three hours.
Once finished, she collects and bags up the gowns which she takes to a collection point in Jackson. From there, the gowns are distributed to those organizations and individuals who have requested them.
“We have lead organizers in several different cities who meet daily or every other day and they bring the gowns back and pick up more supplies,” Staebler says.
Galonsky says she can’t really say one way or another if she’s surprised by the PPE shortages.
“We’re trying so hard to keep everything going and making sure doctors and nurses have the best protection we could get them at the time,” she says. “The immediate need here is for gowns. There are a lot of mask makers and they need to keep making masks and other places that are making respirators and face shields. Gowns are just something that’s needed.
“I have no idea when the demand will let up.”
Because the need will likely continue until the coronavirus is contained, Staebler says Angels Wear Gowns could use more volunteers. She says those who don’t want to make the gowns but want to help can make a financial contribution or purchase supplies to make the gowns from their local home improvement store.
Galonsky says Battle Creek residents who are interested in volunteering can go to the Angels Wear Gowns Facebook page where they will have access to volunteer instructions and video tutorials that demonstrate the gown-making process.
“If they want to become involved they should look at the page and then join the Facebook group
, and private message me and I will help coordinate getting supplies from the larger group,” Galonsky says.
“For me, personally, being married to a medical provider, you know that person is putting themselves at risk every day, going to work. To be able to provide that additional layer of PPE is extremely important to me and the families of all those who are serving on the frontlines.”
Note: How did we get these pictures? Photographer John Grap wore a face mask that covered his mouth and nose and kept the distance between himself and the subject at 6 feet. He did not touch anything in the subject’s home and stayed no longer than necessary to obtain the needed pictures.