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Volunteers adjusted 2,000 gowns too keep Theatre staff safe

28th November 2020


Submitted by Sharon Herring, Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust

We have been working in collaboration with a team of amazing volunteers in our local community and our team of volunteer community drivers on a project vital to ensuring the safety of our staff. When Covid-19 began, the Trust was struggling to get hold of suitable theatre gowns and this was a problem nationally. The gowns formed an integral part of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that we require staff to use. In looking at alternative options, the Trust decided to buy a number of reusable gowns. However, they needed adjusting to make them suitable for widespread use so staff were able to remove them safely.

In particular, the gowns were designed to be put on over the person’s head, but this would present additional risks to staff. Therefore they needed to be altered so that the backs were open. This required sewers to sew up the front poppers so they were sealed, cut the backs, hem them, and then attach poppers to the back so they could be fastened. There were 2,000 gowns to alter and this would have taken our small internal sewing team months to complete, so we looked for additional help from the community. Our Voluntary Services team had contacts with several sewers who made items like quilted blankets and eye masks to donate to the Trust, so they approached them for help.

There was one particular group who emerged to help with this enormous task – Wokingham in Need. This is a charity set up to provide help to the local community, including a number of ladies who enjoy sewing and are willing to help. Through the combined team work of the Voluntary Services team coordinating their volunteer community drivers to deliver and collect the gowns to residences, a central coordinator from Wokingham in Need and this small army of sewers, over a number of weeks, the 2,000 gowns were altered and returned to the Trust to start being utilised as part of their PPE stocks. This was a huge logistical challenge but a shining example of how working together we could utilise the resources, precious gift of time and skills from volunteers beyond our Trust to help keep our staff safe during an incredibly difficult and challenging time.

The people involved in this project were all amazing. The sewers delivered high quality work on the gowns and ensured they were safe for use in the theatres. They often took several boxes of 50 gowns each to help get through this huge task. There were around 10 main sewers who did the bulk of the alterations and divided the tasks amongst themselves. There were some who did not have appropriate attachments on their machines so took on the task of adding the poppers instead. This project was quite a repetitive task but they kept working to get our gowns returned as quickly as possible. All the sewers were fantastic.

The coordinator in the Wokingham in Need charity, Sue, was incredible. She provided information about where boxes of gowns needed to be delivered or collected and was in constant contact with the sewers. She made sure the right people had the cotton, poppers or popper attaching guns they need and utilised her charity’s fundraising to purchase the required items. This cost several thousand pounds, which the Trust kindly did not have to pay. Sue was always available to sort out logistics or solve problems. She also took to the radio and newspapers to make more appeals for helpers in order to get through the sewing faster and be able to return the gowns sooner.

The Voluntary Services Team coordinated the deliveries and collections of the gowns through their volunteer community drivers. The project required over 80 trips and sometimes to locations which required hour long round trips. This was again a huge logistical challenge, getting drivers to the various locations on the days when the sewers were available. The community drivers were brilliant and happy to do journeys at short notice so the gowns could be in the right places and be altered as soon as possible.

The theatres team were so grateful for all the effort involved. It made a huge difference to our staff to be able to have the right PPE available and not to worry about shortages.

“I would like to say an enormous thanks to all the teams of volunteers who altered the gowns for us at the Trust. Having the gowns made a huge difference to us as a Trust as it meant our teams, especially those in the operating theatres, always had adequate PPE and we became more self-sufficient. I am forever grateful to these people who gave up their time and made such a great job adjusting the gowns so that they were fit for purpose.” Gemma Dix (Directorate Manager, Theatres & Anaesthetics)

“I want to thank both the volunteer sewers and drivers, as well as Sue, who have made this project possible. It has been brilliant working in collaboration with our community to deliver something so vital to the Trust at an incredibly difficult time, when the last thing staff need to worry about is adequate PPE to protect them. We can’t thank everyone involved enough”. Kirsten Rogers (Voluntary Services Manager)

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