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Sunday July 12, 2020
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(top) U-M Association of Chinese Professors, (l) Operation Face Shield, (r) Palm Palace crew

The Helpers

They're stepping up with everything from free meals to homemade face shields.

by Trilby MacDonald

From the May, 2020 issue

With thousands of resourceful Ann Arborites out of work or working from home, many are looking for ways to transform their worry into purpose, their idleness into action. And business owners, despite financial strain, find that they have skills and resources they are able to contribute. Here are a few examples of the ways Ann Arborites are helping each other get through Covid-19.

A skin care specialist heads to the frontlines.

With her skin-care business CosMedic LaserMD closed due to Governor Whitmer's stay-at-home order, Deepa Macha wanted to use her time to help. The physician knew that protective respirators for health care workers were in short supply--and that she had some of the components needed to make them in her office. Macha learned how to assemble a reusable elastomeric face respirator by watching a YouTube video, and soon she and her three children, one in high school, two in college, were assembling and distributing hundreds to hospitals in Detroit, New York, and California.

Macha knew there was more she could do. "I was trained in emergency medicine in the New York City hospital system, and I have the skills to do respirator management and emergency pulmonary care." She took a part-time position as an emergency room doctor at Rome Hospital near Syracuse, New York, an area which has been hard hit by Covid-19.

It's a difficult situation. "They are lacking even basic equipment to protect doctors," Macha says. "We are asked to reuse our contaminated masks. I was given a mask that didn't even fit, so I used my own respirator instead."

After a long shift at the hospital, Macha takes another hour to decontaminate her clothes and herself. She even bleaches the quarters she uses to wash her clothing each night. But this level of precaution is uncommon among the hospital staff, she says, and she believes the virus is spreading more quickly because of it.

Back in Ann Arbor, her children continue to assemble

...continued below...


and distribute respirators. Macha is anxious to be reunited with them and reopen CosMedic LaserMD. In the meantime, she will continue to work on the frontlines.

A PPE back channel to China

One of the revelations of the pandemic is how much of the personal protective equipment used in the U.S. is made in China--and with China hit first by the disease, it's been hard to get enough fast enough. But an informal channel opened up by the U-M Association of Chinese Professors is bringing PPE to Michigan straight from China. By mid April, the volunteers had purchased and delivered more than 100,000 face masks--including more than 17,000 with the desperately needed N95 specification.

Lu Wang, an associate professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health, is a driving force behind the effort.

"On March 11 the Chinese professors at U-M started to think about what we can do to help the frontline workers," she explains. "Our concern was ordering the most needed items from China immediately, before everything was bought out, in order to bridge the gap until sufficient American-made supplies became available.

"So many people responded, and within twenty-four hours we had raised $70,000. Later on more people joined us, and we met our goal of raising $120,000 from our professors inside of U-M."

Students, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the Chinese community in Ann Arbor, are ordering equipment in China for University Hospital's Covid-19 caregivers and other area hospitals and senior centers in need.

"When we tell people this idea, many support it," Wang says. To date, more than 100 ACP members and their friends, collaborators, students, postdocs, and family members in China have participated in fundraising, donations, and volunteer work.

"I see all of us as little ants who together have huge power," says Wang. "A lot of little ants can move a whole house!"

Fighting infection with 3-D printers

"Operation Face Shield of Ann Arbor" includes students, teachers, and parents; medical professionals; engineers; academics; and others from across Southeast Michigan--all making face shields on home 3-D printers to protect frontline workers as they treat Covid-19 patients. Most of the more than 1,000 members of the Facebook group are involved in some way in the production, assembly, and distribution of thousands of the shields to area hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care workers. The group uses the Ann Arbor Distilling Company's parking lot as its assembly, disinfection, and distribution point. After building and distributing more than 12,000 shields in less than four weeks, they're starting to get orders from outside Michigan.

Member Hans Masing is already flying the face shields to hospitals and nursing homes in other parts of Michigan. He can fit up to 1,000 in his 1968 Mooney M20F aircraft.

Becky Cherney, a nurse in a Covid-19 unit of University Hospital, is the informal operations manager of Operation Face Shield, dedicating most of her nonworking hours to the group. "There is a lot of negativity now, and this is a bright thing," she says. "I love our community, but my respect for it has grown so much as a result of Operation Face Shield."

Satellite operations using the same model have begun to spring up in other parts of the state, allowing the Ann Arbor group to focus on supplying other essential workers.

"The hospitals are doing okay in our area," Cherney says. "We are starting to reach out proactively to places we think might need them. We have been in contact with homeless shelters, grocery stores, gas stations."

She appreciates that U-M, more stable and better resourced than many other hospitals, has been able to continue performing life-saving surgeries even during the pandemic.

"I had a patient get a lung transplant yesterday," she says. "I am proud of Michigan Medicine."

From vodka to hand sanitizer

In just five years, the Ann Arbor Distilling Company has become a beloved anchor of the Water Hill neighborhood. But when Michigan shut down, demand for its artisanal spirits slowed to a trickle. "At least half of our customer base was restaurants and bars," explains owner Rob Cleveland. "Liquor stores are selling more, but if you are no longer getting a paycheck, you're not going to drop forty dollars on a bottle of alcohol."

So when Cleveland read about a distillery in New York that was making and donating hand sanitizer, a light went on. He could use some of that alcohol he wasn't selling to help fight the pandemic.

The recipe is simple: alcohol, aloe vera gel, and a little hydrogen peroxide (to prevent people from drinking it). They mix it in giant drums and use ladles and funnels to bottle it.

Hand sanitizer has become an extremely valuable and scarce commodity and they've sold a few bulk orders. But Cleveland doesn't see it as a business. "I know that some distilleries have started branding, labeling, and selling hand sanitizer, but in the spirit of trying to do things for the community we are mostly giving it away," he says.

Many gallons have gone to institutions like University Hospital, Mott Children's Hospital, and SafeHouse Center. And they've given out more than 1,250 four-ounce containers to people who've come to the distillery--keeping Water Hill a little safer.

Angels Wear Gowns

In early March, Chelsea couple Jeff and Robyn Staebler decided to join in the homegrown PPE manufacture movement by making isolation gowns. They pulled an old hospital gown out of their children's Halloween costume box and created a template. After a couple of drafts, they settled on four-millimeter plastic as their material, and production began. The first batch went to St. Joseph Mercy-Chelsea.

Robyn put out a call for volunteers on Facebook and received a flood of responses. Their group soon connected with Stacey Grant of Protect Our Frontline Heroes Metro Detroit, and together they became "Angels Wear Gowns." Using plastic film and tape donated by Lowe's and Chelsea Lumber Company, the group of at least seventy members has produced more than 1,000 gowns. The Chelsea Depot Association has provided its building to aggregate the gowns for distribution to more than twenty hospitals and retirement homes.

"These volunteers are the light during a dark situation," says Robyn. "They've found a new purpose in the midst of the chaos."

A restaurateur's illogical generosity

"Since this thing happened I have done everything against logic," says Ahmad Hodroj, owner of Palm Palace on Washtenaw Ave. While other restaurants closed or laid off staff when sit-down dining was banned, Hodroj began giving food away--and gave his workers a raise and a bonus.

"I realized that many kids need food," he says. "Family budgets are out of whack. We started at $2,000 per day [in donations], and that is where we are now. We are open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and people can get free food at any time."

He's paying his staff more, too, because "those guys are risking their lives," he says. "We don't know who is going to walk through those doors. We want to motivate those folks and show them they are appreciated."

Hodroj is betting that the economy is going to recover and his business will survive his bold move to ignore good financial sense and open his arms to the community. And as costly as it is financially, he says the generosity is paying off in other ways. "It is bringing such a positive business ambience and energy flow."

People already are returning to Palm Palace when they have money to spend. "The day everyone received their stimulus checks, the restaurant was inundated with orders," he says. Many people are also making donations. "We get people walking in, buying gift cards, and shredding them."

Hodroj is reaching beyond the Ann Arbor community to help out his native Detroit. "This week marks the fourth week that we provided meals to 400 people at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries." Palm Palace employees also delivered 120 meals to emergency doctors and nurses at St. Joe's Hospital.

Palm Palace opened in 2008 at the onset of the Great Recession. Hodroj is confident his business can also weather Covid-19, but the stress is taking its toll.

"Every day when I go to work, it feels like I am going to the battlefield," he says.

But "no one is thinking profits right now," he says. "Karma is great. Sometimes not planning is a good plan."     (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2020.]

 

 
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