Valerie Dozier of Lower Mount Bethel Township loves spending time in her craft room sewing quilts, painting pottery and crocheting blankets. But in March, when the coronavirus pandemic led to a shortage of PPE, the retired elementary school teacher quickly set aside her projects to help.
Dozier reached out to St. Luke’s University Health Network, and soon found herself spending hours at her sewing machine turning out masks. “I wanted to do something but I don’t have the skills to go be an essential medical worker,” Dozier said. “But I sew and I have all this fabric, so I figured this is something I could do.”
Dozier’s passion led St. Luke’s to tap her for a special assignment – making a face mask tailored for speech therapists. Physical Therapy at St. Luke’s, which offers speech therapy throughout the region at eight outpatient locations, treats patients for a variety of speech disorders, including difficulty producing speech or difficulty with language, feeding problems, swallowing disorders and cognitive-linguistic disorders.
Amy Taylor, MS, CCC-SLP, Director of Outpatient Speech Therapy, said treatment for these disorders is highly visual. “We have to open our mouths wide,” Taylor said. “We have to be able to provide examples of how we speak, how we chew.”
With the pandemic, speech therapists faced a unique dilemma in making sure patients continued to receive the highest level of care while following protocols for safety. Standard face masks don’t work because patients can’t see the therapist’s mouth. Even masks for the hearing impaired, which have popped up on social media, are problematic because they don’t show enough of the face. St. Luke’s was committed to find a solution.
“It’s kids who are learning how to speak well. It’s adults who may have had a stroke and are learning how to speak again. It’s really important to our community,” said Christina Lewis, RN, MPH, Executive Director of St. Luke’s Care Network.
St. Luke’s set up a team that included Taylor, Lewis, Megan Augustine, MEd, Director of the St. Luke’s Simulation Center, Cheryl Davidson, RN, MSN, Senior Network Director/Administrator for Infection Control, and Barbara Nicholas, Director, Network Value Analysis.
Lewis said the team worked closely with the Simulation Center, first establishing that the type of mask they wanted didn’t exist. Then they set about coming up with their own mask design. A big issue was finding clear plastic that would show the mouth and jaw, wouldn’t fog up, could be sewn onto fabric and, most importantly, would block the virus, Lewis said.
The group settled on using plastic from a commercially manufactured face shield, she said. With a design idea and plastic that met their standards, the team turned the work over to Dozier to come up with a prototype.
Dozier said the process was challenging. She had to fashion a mask that showed the face from the nose to below the jaw. The mask couldn’t move when you talked and had to fit snuggly enough to block the virus. “It was a little tough how to figure out how to make the mask curve at the chin,” she said.
Lewis said there was a lot of back-and-forth with Dozier more than happy to make adjustments. “We had to keep customizing it,” she said. “How much plastic should we use? How much extra space do we need? Should we do something around the back of the neck?”
With a seal of approval from the St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Department, Dozier is now in the process of making more than 115 speech therapy masks with materials supplied by St. Luke’s.
She is sewing them with help of her neighbor Linda Benton. Together they have been making traditional cloth masks for St. Luke’s, doctor’s offices, grocery store workers and anyone else who needs one.
“I feel fantastic helping,” Benton said. “We’re now over 1,550 masks.”
The speech therapy masks are being given to therapists (two apiece) and doctors who work with speech and hearing-impaired patients. Once those are finished, others will get them as well. There are several sizes with Dozier fitting staff members to make sure they get the size right.
Taylor said the Speech Therapy Department is thrilled with what Dozier accomplished, saying she was a big part of the team. “Valerie has been great,” Taylor said. “This has been a tremendous project for us.”
Taylor said the masks are already helping. She has a patient with an articulation disorder who also wears a clear mask during sessions to help Taylor understand what she is saying.
“It’s extremely beneficial for her to see what I’m doing with my mouth, and for me to see her, too, for progress to be made,” Taylor said.
Dozier, a mother of three grown children, said she’s happy to be making a difference. “I feel honored to have been asked to do this,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m actually being proactive.”