April 22, 2020

Founder of The Patchwork Bear Fills Need for Isolation Gowns

COMING TO THE RESCUE: Jen Cura, founder of The Patchwork Bear, mobilized a community effort to make isolation gowns for the doctors, nurses, and emergency room staff at Capital Health.

By Anne Levin

As chairman of emergency medicine at Capital Health, Dr. Garrett Sutter was closely involved in planning for the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. He quickly realized that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical staff was going to be in short supply.

Sutter immediately thought of his friend and Hopewell neighbor Jennifer Cura, the founder and designer at The Patchwork Bear, which turns clothing into keepsakes such as memory bears and quilts. Earlier that day, Cura had offered to make face masks for the hospital. That evening, Sutter called Cura back and asked her if she had any ideas for isolation gowns that could be sterilized and reused.

Within a week, the first batch of isolation gowns was delivered to the hospital, and hundreds more were in the works.

“He sounded desperate,” Cura said of that phone call from Sutter. “He asked if I could come up with an easy pattern for an isolation gown because he anticipated that they would be running out of disposable gowns quickly. That evening, he dropped off a disposable gown so I could understand what they needed. I tried to come up with an idea right away.”

As a former architect, Cura was well acquainted with the building paper Tyvek, and thought it might be incorporated into the design. “I friend I know who is a contractor rushed over with some of it, but it was too stiff. So the next morning, I made a gown out of fabric that I had on hand. Dr. Sutter took a sample to his ER staff, and got their feedback. Using that, we made a second sample, and they liked it.”

Cura knew she didn’t have enough fabric or sewing staff to turn out the hundreds of gowns that were needed. Most manufacturers that did that kind of work were closed due to the virus. But Switlik Survival Products in Trenton is a military contractor, deemed essential so still in operation. They agreed to help sew the gowns.

Next was the hunt for fabric and materials that would be available for immediate delivery. Large fabric companies told Cura she would have to wait six to eight weeks for material to arrive. That was unacceptable.

“I made some more calls and I was lucky enough to find a few small businesses, right here in New Jersey, that would supply us quickly,” she said. “They shipped and we had material the next day.”

A $7,500 fundraising campaign to help finance the operation yielded a quick response, allowing Cura to proceed with the more than 1,000 gowns that Capital Health has ordered. Any remaining funds will go to the nonprofit Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPPrinceton), which fights food insecurity in the community.

“I didn’t anticipate how fast and how much of a response we would get,” Cura said. “People said they were donating because they wanted to do something to help, and this was a way for them to do it.”

At Cura’s home in Hopewell, family members have been recruited to help with the effort. While all of the gowns are being sewn at Switlik, masks are being made at Cura’s home. “My whole family now knows how to sew, including my 15-year-old son,” she said. “And we’re doing masks at home, to help protect the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Once the arrangements were made for gowns to be delivered, Capital Health had to come up with a process to have them appropriately cleaned. “A lot of work went into that,” said Sutter. “This all happened fast, and it has made a great dent into our needs. I am really impressed by the way Jen, and the rest of the community, have come together to fill this need. I really believe that this kind of ingenuity and approach is going to be how we’re going to beat this thing. I find it a source of optimism.”