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Nacogdoches County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 25. And although it may seem a world away from the big cities and rising infection rates often associated with large populations, East Texas wasn’t immune.

Personal protective equipment was in short supply everywhere, making it nearly impossible to procure face masks, face shields and protective gowns. That’s when members of the SFA and Nacogdoches communities stepped in to assist.

With the Texas Department of State Health Services reporting 50 positive COVID-19 cases and three deaths as of April 13 in the county, Nacogdoches Memorial Health requested that a grassroots seamstress group's effort, coordinated by SFA theatre professor Angela Bacarisse and costume shop supervisor Barbara Blackwell, expand its volunteer work sewing face masks to assist the hospital.

Memorial Health’s Community Relations Director Kim Barton ‘85 told Bacarisse that additional PPE orders had been placed, but hospital officials were uncertain when those orders would be filled.

As a result, the seamstresses continued to assemble surgical mask coverings from cotton fabric. The masks were being sewn by faculty and staff from several SFA departments, community members and some costume shop alumni, while Bacarisse, Blackwell and other SFA stakeholders focused on constructing the more complex and labor-intensive gowns.

“Barbara and I looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we have the facilities here at SFA, and we can make this happen,’” Bacarisse said. “But this wasn’t just us. This was a group of SFA people — faculty, staff, spouses and a dean — who care about our community.”

Nacogdoches Memorial is accustomed to collaborating with SFA on multiple levels, Barton said. The hospital utilizes student interns from a variety of departments, sponsors an assortment of cultural and sporting events, and supports safety-related organizations like Driving Jacks because they share the hospital’s mission of helping to keep Nacogdoches safe.

“We have always appreciated the value of the university as a partner and a resource, but the COVID-19 pandemic really drove home the importance and the depth of that relationship,” Barton said.

Barton described the work the SFA costume shop and others did as “incredibly personal to our staff,” adding the cloth masks kept the Memorial team safer in broad practical terms as they came and went throughout the hospital, “because the coronavirus could be anywhere.”

“We’re so grateful for that protection, but the isolation gowns were a completely different, extremely personal story,” she said. “They were worn by staff members who knew, without a doubt, that they were dealing with a COVID patient. That barrier was an important layer of the equipment that kept them safe so they could continue to fight the fight, without worrying so much about their own health.

“We saw the news stories about health care workers wearing trash bags over their clothes as protection. That’s so incredibly dangerous if you don’t remove them correctly, because you can aerosolize the virus when you take off the trash bags. It’s a comfort beyond words to know that our community cared enough to work as hard as they did to ensure that didn’t happen to our team.”

Bruton Dr. Dan Bruton, director of engineering and professor in SFA’s Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy, also contributed to the local effort to save lives.

Equipped with just 10 3D printers, he provided medical professionals on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic with lifesaving PPE.

Using a design he found online and modified, Bruton utilized the department’s printers to manufacture face shields and distribute them to Nacogdoches Memorial Health.

These shields were vital to the safety of health care professionals, keeping them protected from infectious droplets released by coughing and sneezing when examining, testing or treating a sick individual, according to Matthew Malloy ‘06, Nacogdoches Memorial Professional Group manager of quality.

It took two to three hours per headgear to print the plastic shield and affix it to the front using thermal laminate and gaskets. After assembly, Bruton delivered them to Malloy for distribution at the hospitals.

After learning Bruton was making the PPE, Malloy was eager to assist. Having had Bruton as a professor for an astronomy class while an SFA student, Malloy was familiar with his attention to detail and commitment to helping others.

“In times of crisis, there always are inspiring individuals who step forward in some capacity to meet a crucial need,” Malloy said. “For Nacogdoches, Dr. Bruton is one of the heroes who stepped up and helped save lives.”

Not only did the shields keep medical professionals in Nacogdoches safe, but the design was shared with SFA alumni in Lufkin who used it to print shields for their community.

Image captions, clockwise from top left: Barbara Blackwell, SFA costume shop supervisor. Angela Bacarisse, SFA theatre professor. Dr. Dan Bruton, director of engineering and professor in SFA’s Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy.