With most colleges and universities canceling or postponing their graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students will no longer be donning their graduation caps and gowns this spring. But instead of letting these gowns sit in a dusty warehouse, Taran Catania ’13, who is set to graduate from the Sustainable Innovation MBA program at University of Vermont this August, has found a use for these extra garments. Along with her friends from the program, Catania has founded the nonprofit Gowns4Good, which aims to repurpose graduation gowns into a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses and doctors working in hospitals fighting the coronavirus battle.
The idea sparked in April, when Catania recalled getting a call from her friend Than Moore, who works at least 20 hours per week in the emergency room, to meet him at work.
“He was like, ‘Here’s the plan. I know that we’re okay on PPE at the University of Vermont Medical Center, but I have just heard of colleagues who are in Albany and are desperate because a guy from Lowe’s is now sending them a truckload of garbage bags to use as gowns because they’re completely out of anything else,’” Catania said. “‘We have graduation gowns in our locker right now, what if we just give those gowns, and get everyone to give these gowns, to these people who are using trash bags.’”
As of April 30, 2,881 gowns have been individually donated, 1,500 gowns have been donated by institutional partners, and medical facilities have requested 67,980 gowns. The medical facilities span across 46 of the 50 states.
“We have a ton in New York, a few in the other hard-hit metropolitan areas, but we’ve even got ones in rural New Mexico who have just as much need because even if it’s a smaller facility, there’s even less aid and supplies being sent to places like that,” Catania explained. “Everyone is in need, and everyone can be helped.”
Catania points out that while the gowns aren’t as effective as traditional PPE, they do a better job than nothing.
“You should at all costs try and have that PPE,” Catania explained. “But if the difference is no PPE or a trash bag, a graduation gown is actually much more preferable.”
Specifically, graduation gowns cover more of the body than a trash bag.
“The parts of your body that are at most exposure when you’re doing patient care, which is like your chest, your forearms, your neck, a trash bag isn’t going to cover those,” Catania said. “A graduation gown has longer sleeves, which you can stitch up or do whatever. It’s got the full coverage. And if you wear it backwards, it has an even higher neckline. The other big piece that’s really helpful is that there’s just a zipper to get it on and off.”
Catania also emphasized that the graduation gowns protect more than the medical workers themselves—they also protect the patients.
“You have to remember the PPE isn’t only protecting the health care worker; it’s protecting each of the patients that visit because they’re changing gowns at whatever frequency the hospital is deeming appropriate so they don’t pass it from patient to patient,” Catania said. “A lot of this gear is being basically used and then set aside for three days, because the virus can’t live on something for more than three days, and then used again. The more options they have, the better.”
The process to donate is quite simple.
“You can go to gowns4good.net,” Catania said. “Right on our page, you click to donate gowns. It’s really simple, you just fill out the form and say, ‘I’m this person, I live in this state,’ and you can select a medical facility that’s requesting gowns. Let’s say it’s one near you, theoretically you can bring it directly, or it’s one near you where the shipping won’t be as expensive, or it’s one that you have an emotional connection that’s maybe not near you that you want to send to.”
This way, Catania explains, it’s easier to get the gowns where they need to go in a timely manner.
“We’re letting everyone just pick because it gets the gowns there as fast as possible,” Catania explained. “So you fill out the form, you get an email with the shipping instructions, you know put it in a bag, wrap it like this, send it to the medical facility you’re choosing, and then it’s right in the hands of a health care worker.”
Gowns4Good has received positive feedback from health care workers, individuals donating, the Wesleyan community, and even the media. On April 29, the group was featured on Good Morning America.
“I would say this is especially fun to promote because the tangible-ness of holding the graduation gown that’s been in the back of your closet and putting it in a package and knowing you might see a photo of this on our social media in a couple of weeks on a healthcare worker,” they said. “To me, that made me feel really connected to it and I think that sort of tangible feeling of helping is really empowering for a lot of people and we’re getting a lot of feedback about it. That makes me happy.”
For those looking to make a difference during this time, Catania has some ideas.
“The best thing you can do right now is stay inside and limit your exposure, practice really good social distancing,” Catania said. “And then also, just be really forgiving of yourself. You can’t help every initiative, so if something is meaningful to you, go ahead and lean in, but also, like, we’ve all gotta take care of each other so it’s going to look different for different people.”
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