The suit was the product of a “hackathon” organized last year by Johns Hopkins University in the quest to improve upon the standard protective suits. An email circled campus asking for volunteers to spend a weekend trying everything and anything to improve the safety of the gear that health care workers across the globe wear when treating patients with Ebola. Applications flooded in from biomedical engineers, doctors, infection control specialists, accomplished students, experienced researchers. . . and Andrews, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, who designs bridal wear at her own small Charm City atelier.
Some people questioned what a woman normally surrounded by taffeta and lace could have to offer to the highly-technical challenge.
Four months later, Andrews laughs as she wonders what the Johns Hopkins team would have done without her.
“I think they would have been using a lot more duct tape,” she says.
The next month, the redesigned PPE won the challenge posed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was looking for innovations to “provide better, more timely care and to contain this devastating virus.” This meant USAID would provide $1.7 million for the three winning ideas to undergo extensive testing, followed by mass production and use in the field.
But first, Andrews got to take the Ebola suit to Fashion Week, where Jhpiego had partnered with the International Rescue Committee and the GE Foundation to present a pop-up lounge Friday night at the Empire Hotel.
“Fashion Week is about new designs,” said Dr. David Barash, chief medical officer of the GE Foundation. “Innovation was so important to the way Jhpiego approached the PPE. To have a wedding designer participate was in itself creative and thoughtful. Her engagement helped bring down the number of steps it takes to remove the suit from 20 to eight, from a 20 minute process to a 5 minute one. It was an extraordinary accomplishment if you think about it.”
Along with a faster removal process, the suit also has:
- A larger face mask to allow the health care workers to see better. This also helps patients be less intimidated, because the suit makes it easier to see the worker’s face.
- Two layers of gloves. The contaminated layer comes off when the suit is removed, leaving a clean layer that makes it safe for the caretaker to use their hands.
- A belt-worn battery pack that blows dry, filtered air into the suit. This keeps caretakers cool, which is crucial in the countries with the most widespread outbreak of Ebola, where the climate can be extremely hot.
Andrews spent many late nights transforming the suit from prototype to reality, including when USAID presented it to Ebola Czar Ron Klain. She beamed with pride when she was told her “baby” also made a trip to the White House.
But looking ahead to her trip last week, Andrews was more nervous about finishing a wedding gown in time for a Valentines Day bride than her unlikely New York Fashion Week debut.
“I’ve learned how everyone has useful skills that are so transferable,” she said. “As my sister always says, you should ‘use your powers for good.'”