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50,000 Masks

As COVID-19 began fueling the global rush to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), Drs Tejal Patel (Associate Professor), Cathy Risdon (Professor and Vice Chair) and Doug Oliver (Associate Professor) were — like many of their colleagues — discussing ways the McMaster Family Health Team could ensure they had the PPE (particularly masks and gloves) to safeguard both the clinicians and their patients. How the FHT would access enough gowns, masks, overalls and face shields was not clear, but the leadership team was open to all ideas.

Patel wondered if there might be somebody, living 1,100 km south of Hamilton, who could help.

Not long before, a physician group in Charlotte, North Carolina had asked Tejal’s brother, Chirag Patel, to source PPE for them. “This was an odd task for a pharmacist to undertake,” says Tejal of her brother, “but he knew how crucial these supplies would be in the coming months and was determined to help.” Soon, he was being asked to order large volumes of PPE for other health care organizations in North Carolina too.

“50,000 masks, can he get us 50,000?” Cathy Risdon asked, recognizing that an opportunity to order masks for the FHT was also an opportunity to supply masks to other local healthcare providers in need.

Tejal called her brother. He called his suppliers.

Yes, 50,000 surgical masks were available, but the supplier needed the full $126,000 (CDN) payment from McMaster University by the end of day, otherwise the masks would head to another buyer.


The cost of the masks was reasonable, especially as global supply fell shorter and shorter of demand. But, to move that amount of money through all the checks and balances of a public institution, in just a few hours, was going to take a wealth of trust and collaboration.

“I called Paul O’Byrne [Dean and Vice-president, Faculty of Health Sciences] to say I needed to spend $126,000 today,” says David Price, Chair and Professor at the Department of Family Medicine. “We knew it was going to take a team effort, but every step of the way, anyone we pulled-in understood how important these masks would be to protecting our community.”

“You can imagine the look on my face when I received David’s email,” says Natalie Illingworth, Manager of Finance for the Department of Family Medicine. She knew the order was necessary, but she also knew the typical university mechanisms involved in spending that amount of cash would take days or weeks, not hours.

Illingworth had previously worked with Angelo DiLettera, the Director of Strategic Procurement at McMaster, so she picked-up the phone and gave him a call.

DiLettera took it to Deidre Henne, Assistant Vice-President (Administration) and Chief Financial Officer for McMaster. By 3:00 PM, word came back to the Department of Family Medicine: everything was properly approved and the funds were ready to be wired to the supplier.

These masks were headed to Hamilton.

A few days later, John Bentley, the Customs & Traffic Officer for the university sent Illingworth an email to say the first shipment had arrived at the border — Bentky had worked with Chirag Patel to arrange quick shipping and was helping to facilitate their clearance into Canada. By the afternoon they were in the clinics.

The remaining masks arrived a few days later.


Masks from this order have been distributed to local colleagues in long-term care, palliative care, other community health care setting. Continuing this partnership’s success, Hamilton Public Health has connected with Chirag Patel and more PPE is on its way to our community.

If even one person had responded with less than full trust in their colleagues, the chain would have been broken and the masks would not be here today. The dedicated people in our clinics, the patients who need to be seen in-person as well as our wider-community are that much more protected because of everyone’s agile and smart work.

Of course, this is just one example of the creative connections our department has drawn on to help keep our community safe during COVID. Through these actions, we have also been able to provide a supply of PPE to local shelter staff, who were without any. Here are just a few more examples of our work:

  • Doug Oliver has sourced 200 face shields from Brandon Phinney at Next Manufacturing through a contact from his hometown in Whitby.
  • Claudia Steffler’s neighbour and friend, Mike Sammut, helped secure plexiglass and build the barriers for the clinics’ reception desks and clinic aide areas.
  • Another friend of Claudia’s, Beth McNally, a McMaster Research Engineer and Operations Manager, secured disposable gowns and goggles.
  • Joyce Zazulak and friends (including Beth McNally again) sewed 200 washable gowns for use by clinicians in our FHT and for staff working in shelters in Hamilton. Heather Brierley collected the gowns from the sewing team and washed and folded all 200 of them.
  • Tejal Patel connected with McMaster’s Biochemistry and Engineering departments to arrange for googles, should there be a shortage of facemasks.
  • Jessica Langevin, a former research assistant with the department (now in Med School in Ireland) arranged for her father to donate masks to the FHT.
McMaster University Department of Family MedicineMichael G. DeGroote School of Medicine