School of Nursing alumni send students encouragement along with masks

Dozens of handmade cloth masks are aligned in 2 rows

When Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Dean Linda D. Norman, DSN, RN, FAAN, emailed a request to alumni and friends of the school in May asking them to make and send cloth face masks to be used by students during their clinical rotations, she hoped that the school might receive enough to give one mask to each of the 154 PreSpecialty students.

What the school received, however, was a generous flood of masks that are still coming in—more than 1,000 by latest count.

“In the spring, the CDC recommended cloth masks in non-COVID-19 care,” said Norman, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing. “We were so grateful that Vanderbilt University Medical Center was making it possible for our students to complete the clinical side of their first year that we wanted to make sure all students had a proper cloth face mask to use.”

Within a few days of that email appeal, packages started arriving at the School of Nursing. When they were opened, not only did they contain assorted colored masks, but many also included personal notes encouraging the students, thanking the school for the opportunity to help, and giving background on the makers and donors of the masks.

Some senders wrote that they had never sewn before, but started during the pandemic. Others sent medical grade masks and gloves, or masks they had purchased specifically for the students. Some alumni reported that they had enlisted the help of parents or friends, or in some cases, their church or co-workers. The largest donation came from the Vanderbilt Women’s Group, which contributed more than 250 masks.

Mandy Harper, MSN’00, made mask-sewing a family affair. She wrote that the masks she sent were “Made with the help of Brooklyn (age 6) and Sophie Harper (age 9).” Each mask was accompanied by the message, “Best of luck in your summer clinicals and in your nursing career!” Julie Clements Healey, MSN’11, asked her mother-in-law, Marcia Steward, RN, if she would sew some masks for the students. “As an RN myself for the past 51 years, I am more than happy to do so,” Steward wrote.

Virginia State Senator Jen Kiggans, MSN’12, wrote that seniors were much in her thoughts during the pandemic. “As a (Vanderbilt-trained) Adult-Geriatric Nurse Practitioner, I am especially mindful of the issues that have affected our vulnerable older adults, and continually advocate for better testing, staffing, and care for my patients in this setting. I hope you can use these few masks for your students. Please know that you are all in my thoughts as frontline workers out fighting the fight every day.”

VUSN Alumni Board President Joshua Thornsberry, MSN’12, wanted to show alumni support. “While my mask-making abilities are lacking, I would be remiss for not answering your call to action. In collaboration with my mother-in-law, Mrs. Shirley M. Christian, we chose a fabric that embodies Vanderbilt pride. It was her passion and talent for sewing that realized this meaningful project. Importantly, she included words of encouragement and her call to action for the nurses wearing these masks. I couldn’t be prouder of her genuine support for this cause.”

Elizabeth Deal, MSN’15, also included a note of encouragement. “To all the students and faculty of VUSN, I am so proud of you. I am proud of the excellent job that VUSN has done ensuring the safety of student and faculty while continuing to provide world-class nursing education. I am proud of the students for making the noble decision to become nurses, for enduring the rigor associated with the top-notch VUSN training, and for remaining committed to their goals in a time of great uncertainty. You are the future of nursing and I will be so proud to warmly welcome you as colleagues when you’ve completed your training.”

Kate FitzPatrick, DNP’12, is system senior vice president of nursing for Jefferson Health in Pennsylvania. She and her husband sent masks which had been made especially for the students by a relative and her friends calling themselves “the Busy Mask Makers at Church of the Ascension” in Claymont, Delaware.

The masks came in all kinds of patterns and colors. Some had nursing-themed fabric or Vanderbilt black and gold. Many were bright and playful. Susan Christos McKenney, MSN’92, sent 50 made from fabric she had planned to use for her son’s senior class play. “With sadness his play, ‘All Shook Up,’ never happened due to the pandemic. I was glad to be able to make something with this fabric that would serve a great purpose.”

Norman and Senior Associate Dean Mavis Schorn were on hand to greet the students as they arrived at VUMC for their first clinical rotation in June. Masks were given to clinical instructors to distribute to their students. 

Student reaction was surprise, delight and gratitude when they realized alumni had provided masks for them. Instructor Jill Harris’ students sent a photo of themselves wearing the masks and specifically wanted to thank alumni for making and donating masks to keep them safe during their Capstone clinicals.

“I was confident that our alumni would want to help our students with masks, but the response has been remarkable,” Norman said. “They not only took care of the existing PreSpecialty students, but they provided so many masks that we were able to give them to the incoming class as well.”

Recently, the CDC guidelines for clinical practice changed to require surgical masks and face shields, but the cloth masks are not going to waste.

“Vanderbilt University requires everyone to wear masks on campus, so our students will utilize the donated masks when they are here,” Norman said. “I am very grateful to all the mask donors. It means a lot to the students to know that Vanderbilt nurses and their families were thinking of them and sending good wishes for their nursing careers.”

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Masks made by alumni and friends for VUSN PreSpecialty students as they start their clinicals.