“YOU can help save lives!” the e-mail blast said. “Only 60 slots available.”
Biomedical engineers at Johns Hopkins University were looking for experts, people who could combine brain power to solve a widespread problem in the fight against Ebola. Those white and yellow moon suits that protect health workers from the virus? They’re nearly always too hot, too big and too difficult to take off.
Dozens of applications for a weekend-long challenge flooded in, from doctors, infection-control experts, engineers, accomplished students, designers of medical devices — and a wedding dress maker.
Jill Andrews, who owns a gown shop in Baltimore, received the e-mail from a friend at the university.
The challenge: Make a better suit to protect caregivers from Ebola. The other challenge: The scientists don’t know how to sew.
And that’s how a woman who normally spends her day wading through taffeta and lace ended up in the world of plastic and disease, scissors in hand.
Andrews, 47, arrived at Johns Hopkins’s design challenge in October unsure of what to expect. She was grateful, she said, that they were taking her seriously. The 60 participants were divided into teams, with each group tackling a specific problem with the “personal protective equipment” worn by doctors and nurses treating patients with Ebola. They would deconstruct the existing suits to make better ones, and the best ideas would be submitted to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency announced in October that it would administer awards of up to $1 million each to those who could develop a better protective suit.
Names and occupations of the team members were written on cards and placed on a white board. “Jill Andrews, clothing designer” is what the gown-maker decided to write, because she thought mentioning wedding dresses might be written off as superfluous in a room full of people with double-sided résumés.
Like the researchers and physicians around her, Andrews sees herself as a problem-solver. She first learned to sew at age 4, on her great-aunt’s treadle sewing machine. She studied textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. In the middle of the Great Recession, she opened a custom wedding dress studio in a castle-like building in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood.
Andrews is a people-pleaser, hoping to be a woman’s last stop on her search for bridal perfection. Standing behind teary brides as they first glimpse themselves in the dresses of their dreams is Andrews’s favorite part of the job. Getting there is where the problem-solving comes in.
“I want to look like sea glass,” a bride once told her.
“I want to look like a glass of milk,” another has said.
“To be Julie Andrews!” a third; this is her every day. And before her shop, Andrews spent 14 years making costumes for Baltimore’s Center Stage, a professional theater company.
“This girl has 23 seconds under the stage to change a whole outfit, including a wig and boots that lace up the back,” was the kind of request that Andrews was accustomed to accommodating.
The suit that protects someone from contracting Ebola has no corset or train, but it does present some similar challenges. It has to fit. It has to have some ventilation. And you have to be able to get it on and off easily.
This was most clear to Andrews and her team on the first day of the challenge, as they watched two nurses demonstrate how the suit works. The nurses stepped into the equivalent of large, white, plastic onesies with a hood and a face mask.
The material of the protective suit is made so fluids can’t seep through, as contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient is how the disease is spread. But that means no air is coming through either. The nurses told the group that they were instantly sweating. “If they were sweating in this air-conditioned room,” Andrews remembers thinking, “imagine what it’s like to wear one of these in West Africa.”
The suits were also too big for the nurses, because hospitals do not often order enough of them to purchase varying sizes. Extra fabric can easily get in the way while treating a patient, the nurses explained.
But the most dangerous problem with the existing suit, the teams learned, was in taking it off safely. The process usually requires two people, takes up to 20 minutes and requires immense care not to touch any part of the suit that might have come into contact with bodily fluids. That’s incredibly hard to do, said Soumyadipta Acharya, a physician and program director for the Center for Bioengineering, Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins.
“These are highly trained people,” Acharya said. “And they’re using the best equipment that’s available, and yet they’re getting infected.”
On the second day of the challenge, the teams set out to fix that. Participants packed a design lab on the Johns Hopkins campus, where nearly every surface is a white board. There were drawings on the walls, on the tables, on computers and on windows.
What wasn’t covered in dry-erase marker was covered in the supplies that came back when an organizer was given free rein on a shopping expedition to Jo-Ann Fabrics and Wal-Mart: staples, duct tape, diapers, buttons, cooling pads, tubing, magnets, a child’s snorkel mask, adhesive, glitter, chocolate syrup, Tyvek wrap, Velcro, elastic and plastics of all kinds.
And in the middle of the cutting and passing and taping was Andrews, sitting in the corner on the sewing machine and fielding requests from her teammates and others: “Can you sew this?”
They turned their ideas into improvements they could touch and try on, giving Andrews the same feeling she gets watching brides’ ideas come to life. Even while working to help combat a deadly disease, the mother of two doesn’t hide her sugarcoated outlook on life. After two divorces, she still says things like, “I never worry about love, because I know we can make more of it.” When talking about what her job means to her kids, she says, “They understand the meaning of being a giver to the world, not just a taker.” And when talking about Ebola, she speaks of how her daughter’s godmother was born in Liberia, one of three countries with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “widespread transmission” of Ebola, meaning that being able to help “means the world” to her.
And so she sewed and contributed ideas and ate Panera bagels and sewed some more, until the three days of the workshop were over and it was clear that there was more work to do. Andrews’s team had created a suit sewn with elastic, so that it was one-size-fits-all. And even better: It was easier to take off. And even best: When it was taken off, it could be rolled up in a way that contained all the possible fluids it touched in a plastic bag.
The details are secret until Johns Hopkins can secure a patent and submit ideas to USAID. The weekend after the competition, Andrews and 15 of the experts began combining the best ideas from all the teams. The first deadline for USAID was this past Friday, but the group is planning to keep working until it has two complete prototypes of the improved suits.
Team members met in Andrews’s gown-making studio, where there are chandeliers, antique sofas, silks flown in from Italy, gold-frame mirrors and a seemingly endless amount of lace. But there’s also a large work space and an infectious disease to control. Someone went out and bought a roll of Tyvek wrap.
“Just, please,” Andrews told them. “No writing on the walls this time.”