An army of volunteers mobilise to help NHS

It is in times of crisis that the resilience of a community is tested. Among the many volunteer initiatives launched across the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the dozens of scrub hub teams have demonstrated how effectively communities can be mobilised to work together, even in isolation.

At the start of the pandemic Ashleigh Lindsell, an NHS worker from Lincoln, formed For the Love of Scrubs to encourage people to help make scrubs from their homes in order to fill a gap in provisions for NHS staff.

Because hospital workers’ scrubs need to be frequently changed in order to stop contamination, they are in very high demand. The items that volunteers have made include different-sized scrub sets, scrub caps, scrub bags to ensure that the clothes can be transported safely to be washed by staff at home, as well as headbands to reduce the pressure of face masks on the skin.

From its start on March 23, the main Love of Scrubs Facebook group has attracted over 52,000 members, who were organised into regional hubs with local co-ordinators to service area hospitals.

The group provided a list of hospitals across the country detailing the scrub colours and sizes required, and coordinators networked with the hospitals and organised volunteers on all the different tasks. The operation quickly went into high gear. Countless YouTube demonstration videos were made and online patterns were shared; people emptied their airing cupboards of old duvets and sheets, unused sewing supplies like rolls of elastic, thread and binding tapes were passed on.

Across the country, thousands of scrub sets were delivered to hospitals. Locally, hundreds of volunteers spent the lockdown working all hours in tightly coordinated networks to deliver scrubs.

The Oundle For the Love of Scrubs group was initiated by Caroline Hawkins. After putting out a call on Facebook on March 23, 154 people joined the group, working tirelessly throughout the month of April. Pick Arthey was used as a depot for the pick-up and supply of materials, which was all coordinated via the Facebook group.

Every willing volunteer had a task to do, whether cutting patterns or sewing. Although no-one was expected to be an expert, the standards were kept high throughout. At a minimum, volunteers who manned the sewing machines were required to use French seams or overlocked seams, make accurately placed pockets, casings for a drawstring and drawstring ties out of biased binding.

It was ensured that this level was always met and surpassed, especially after reports of some scrubs from other groups being rejected by hospitals. Those who were out of practice were encouraged to set easy targets to practise with.

“Start with a bag, then a hat UNTIL you are confident and competent at making a item that would pass Esme or Patrick on the Great British Sewing Bee! Then do a set of scrubs,” said Ms Hawkins.
On May 4, the good news arrived that Peterborough Hospital Trust had enough scrubs to meet their requirements.

In six weeks they produced in excess of 390 items, from scrub sets to scrub bags and hats for Peterborough City Hospital, Thorpe Hall, Boroughby Medical Centre, Charing Cross, London and Oundle Surgery.

Ms Hawkins said: “The Oundle Team were truly amazing; they have been so wonderful just stepping up and volunteering. It has been wonderful to work together as a community.”

After folding their successful scrubs operation, the group was reluctant to disband. It has now renamed itself Material Girls, and is looking at other ways they can share and use their skills in new projects.

Another person who used her time to help hospital staff was Kate Doherty, who was furloughed from an administrative job at the Stamford Shakespeare Company. She said that she had been “in awe of what James Anderson was doing and I felt so useless.” This spurred her on to ask a friend who works in Peterborough City Hospital’s paediatric ward if she could offer any help. Her friend said they needed scrubs, which they do not normally wear.

Ms Doherty didn’t have any official material, but she improvised. She began by putting a call out on Facebook to ask if anyone had any duvets to donate. Then everything took off, and she formed an Oundle Offshoot Group, independent from For the Love of Scrubs. Soon her front room was filled with boxes of donated duvet covers and bags of fabric. Thirty-five volunteers joined her in all sorts of tasks, from washing donated duvet covers, separating and folding fabric, cutting fabric, as well as sewing.

scrubs 1

The Peterborough City Hospital paediatric ward had asked for 30 sets of scrubs, and Doherty’s team made 38 sets, including wash bags using bright patterns from old duvets. At the end of April, the paediatric dental ward in the hospital also asked for her to provide scrubs, and another contact in the hospital asked them to make gowns for the critical care unit. The hospital was able to hand over 60 large pieces of fabric for the gowns. Doherty and her team members had to work out a pattern that would be suitable and easy to make.

The team worked together on different tasks to streamline the process in order to be efficient. On a busy afternoon in late April, Ms Doherty said: “Sylvia in Wadenhoe makes the paper patterns. She is going to do ten for me this afternoon for people to pick up, with the ties that have been cut by others, the elastic that has been cut, the fabric that’s been folded, the instructions that Ruth helped me redo, because she was the one who helped me on the first gown. Then they go away and a couple of days later they come back with finished gowns.”

Kate Doherty said she would carry on the effort “until they stop asking and they don’t need me anymore, or my lovely team of people find they have to go back to work.”

Lindy Kirk, a physics teacher at Oundle School, is an enthusiastic seamstress and makes clothes for herself and her young nieces and grandson. Her skills were quickly put to use in the national effort to help the NHS.

Mrs Kirk said: “I was planning to spend some time over the holiday making a summer wardrobe for my grandson, but one of the groups that I follow on Facebook mentioned another group set up by a nurse who was desperate for people to make scrubs.” Mrs Kirk joined the group For the Love of Scrubs and set herself up making scrubs.

In normal times, a hospital may only require about 400 sets of scrubs every week. But during this crisis, with more staff in hospitals, and contamination making necessary multiple changes in a single shift, the demand outweighed the supply.

“I joined the Hinchingbrooke and Peterborough group. Within a day, I’d been asked to be an admin. Within a week, we had 500 members, and I was coordinating the Peterborough end of the region,” she said.

Coordinating 180 members in her group was like a military exercise. They obtained some corporate sponsorship to pay for the fabric, and within a month had gone through about 3km of fabric, plus many used duvet covers. “Some of the Zoom conference calls were over three hours long!” she said.

Deliveries of supplies included 100 messenger bags, 350 scrub caps and 80 mask holders. In the second delivery, 75 scrub sets were given to the hospitals. Additionally, they responded to requests from the MAGPAS air ambulance, Thorpe Hall Hospice, East Anglia Children’s Hospice and a hospice in Norfolk. They sent 350 uniform washbags to the police.

When Mrs Kirk returned to teaching full time after the Easter break she reduced her role to coordinating a smaller group. In late April she said: “The group keeps growing. The regional group is about 1750 members now, and I’ve made a lot of friends.” By late April her group had sent 400 sets of scrubs to the hospitals.

Alice Blackmore
May 2020