Larner Responds: Making Masks in East Los Angeles

Jhaimy Fernandez '20
Jhaimy Fernandez ’21 outside of Las Palmas in East Los Angeles

My grandma was a seamstress during the early part of her life. Growing up, my dad would tell me stories about how when their family immigrated to the United States, my grandma spent countless hours sewing bags, t-shirts, wedding dresses and anything anyone would hire her to sew. My grandma said she would sew so much she sometimes sewed over her fingers! Growing up, I remember she sewed our Halloween costumes. There was never a Halloween costume too creative my grandma could not sew! For my Quincenera (Sweet Fifteen), she sewed an elegant ball gown. There was something special about a dress my grandma made. We were always proud of the final product.

So when my grandma asked me how we could help with the pandemic, I suggested making cloth masks. Since my grandparents have been in strict isolation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, my dad and I stood on the front porch and discussed the idea via cell phone, looking at her through the glass door into her kitchen. I showed her a mask-making YouTube video by placing my cell phone screen against the door. She watched intently and made comments here and there about how she would do it differently. She went to her room to make a sample and in ten minutes appeared with a prototype. Then, as would often happen, she sent us to the local fabric store, Las Palmas (The Palms), with orders for more material.

We grew up in East Los Angeles. As my dad and I drove through the empty streets, we saw graffiti and fast food wrappers on the ground.  When we arrived at Las Palmas, a store owned by a Hispanic immigrant family my grandma has known well for a long time, a line had formed outside to place orders. My dad and I stood six feet behind a middle-aged Hispanic man. I overheard him say he needed ten yards of cotton fabric. As the owner took his orders and went away, I asked if he was making masks. “Yes,” the man replied. “One of my friends is a designer and he’s making them for my family.”

I asked two more Hispanic women in the line if they were making masks. “Yes,” said the younger of the two. “This is my mom. She used to embroider Mexican napkins used to keep tortillas warm.” She went on to explain how she was in her second year at a local college and hoped to attend nursing school. I said I was a medical student. We continued to talk about our families and our plans to make masks. When we finished getting our 10 yards of cotton fabric, I waved goodbye and wished her good luck. Back in the car, we had another prototype mask from my grandma and my dad suggested we give it to her as a sample. I did, and I gave her my phone number too to see if she wanted to continue our conversation.

As we drove off, I saw a line of people just like my dad and I outside Las Palmas. I couldn’t help but think that they all probably had a grandma like mine waiting at home to make them a mask. We were but one of many people in our community taking ownership of our family’s safety. This made sense, I thought. Hispanics are creative and will do everything to take care of their family.

The following week, I reflected on what I had seen at Las Palmas and what I was hearing on the news about the scarcity of PPE in hospitals. If more communities make masks, they are keeping themselves safe, preventing ER admissions and conserving precious PPE. This is preventive care. Best of all, communities are motivated to act. There’s a belief in medicine that it’s hard to change a patient’s habits. I had just found the opposite. As a fourth-year medical student, I was supposed to be starting my family medicine acting internship. Instead, I had found the perfect opportunity to promote preventive care, exactly what I would have been doing during my AI.

I went home and researched how to maximize the effect of a cloth mask. Multiple articles stated the largest drawback to effectiveness was proper donning/doffing technique and hygiene. An idea occurred to me: If people were going to be waiting in line to buy material to make a cloth mask, what if I made a poster explaining best practices for using a mask? I could hang it outside Las Palmas’ door so they could read it while waiting in line.

The following day, my dad drove me and my poster to Las Palmas. As we approached, we saw a line of 10 people wearing handmade masks, patiently waiting (six feet apart) in line. My dad asked the store manager for permission to place the poster on the wall and she agreed. As I duct-taped the sign, I could feel eyes piecing through me. The feeling could have been enough for me to leave, but then I remembered that this was the career I was working so hard for. I will be a family medicine doctor who will speak to patients, meet them where they are, and promote preventive care. I introduced myself to each person in the line –  what I had learned in doctoring skills and practiced throughout my clerkship quickly came back to me. The majority of people were Spanish speaking, so I spoke in Spanish too. It felt natural, like I was transitioning from my medical student identity to my new role as a family medicine physician.

My grandma has now made everyone in our family cloth masks. She even had extra material to make us two! When I told my grandma I had given away one of her prototypes, she smiled. She was proud that we were able to help our community. When she said we should make masks for everyone, I said, no – it’s okay, we already are. We are amplifying our efforts by providing more education.

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