Heroes Need Masks: How Charleston is Fighting the PPE Shortage

Apr 6, 2020

Dr. Lacey MenkinSmith has made a career of global, infectious disease medicine and has long felt a worldwide pandemic was inevitable.  Yet, even she is having a hard time coming to terms with COVID-19.

"It's real, but sometimes I can't wrap my head around it," Dr. MenkinSmith says.  She's the Director of High-Risk Infectious Disease for the Emergency Department at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"I certainly never imagined that I would have to use the same sort of thought process that I do in my work overseas actually working in the United States."

Dr. MenkinSmith says because the coronavirus pandemic is global, the supply chain for personal protection equipment or PPE has been squeezed, including everyone who makes masks and gloves to those who ship them.

"Even when it exists it doesn't always get to where it needs to be and you're definitely seeing that with other cities in the country right now."

The pictures out of places like New York have been heart wrenching:  patients spill out into hospital hallways; doctors and nurses scramble for ventilators, masks and gloves just to do their jobs; then, there are the makeshift morgues. 

"A lot of healthcare workers feel like they've been abandoned," says Dr. Sanford Zeigler.  He's the Medical Director at MUSC's cardiovascular ICU.

"I've got friends who have their colleagues get sick and die," says Dr. Zeigler.  "I can't just sit back and take that."

Matthew J. Graves, MD and Renee Harvey collect supplies as part of "Heroes with Masks" to be donated to MUSC.

So, he started a website called, "Heroes Need Masks" as well as a Facebook page.  Both encourage people to scour their communities for PPE.

"The first time I donated to the emergency room, the nurse who accepted the items, her voice cracked when she said thank you," Dr. Zeigler says.

The generosity quickly caught on with people sharing patterns for sewing face masks and collecting supplies.  

Renee Harvey has been volunteering.  Her husband is an anesthesia resident who's at an increased risk for exposure to COVID-19 because he helps people breathe.  She just couldn't imagine he and others without proper PPE.

"It's horrifying to me and it's not fair," says Harvey.

She's been reaching out to construction workers, boat makers, veterinarians and anyone else she can think of who might have masks and gloves.  She's also asked friends to check out their sheds.

The response has been overwhelming.

"I always say I'm surprised, but I'm not because this is Charleston and that is how Charleston responds to everything you know."

Harvey even contacted State Senator Marlon Kimpson who has been spreading the world about "Heroes Need Masks" through social media.

State Senator Marlon Kimpson helps load up supplies as part of "Heroes Need Masks" donation effort for MUSC.
Credit Renne Harvey

"I think it gives people a mechanism to feel like they too are engaged in the fight while staying at home," says Senator Kimpson.

Dr. MenkinSmith says her team is grateful for people staying home to stop the spread of the coronavirus and for the supplies.  MUSC has set up a donation site at 4295 Arco Drive in North Charleston.

"We're literally the front lines of the hospital," she says.  "It means a lot to have protective gear that we need in order to care for patients."

She doesn't know if the hospital will see a surge.  The coronavirus has yet to peak in South Carolina.  But she says now is the time to work together.

"I think we will all be affected by it," Dr. MenkinSmith says.  "I think that to a certain extent it brings people together because we realize we are all in this together."