I came out of retirement to help provide scrubs for NHS frontliners

Last December, I retired after 35 years in the construction industry. I was looking forward to gardening, reading and spending time with my wife – I’d even planned to start running again after 50 years with a view to completing a marathon before I am 70.

Then coronavirus started to spread and the UK went into lockdown. I knew little about the virus and at 68, I didn’t think I could be much help. But in late March, my wife got an unexpected tax rebate of just over £1,500.

We are fortunate that we didn’t ‘need’ the money, so I thought we could put some of it towards the pandemic response effort.

My daughters had heard about a project that was making scrubs for their local hospital and it immediately seemed like an obvious choice.

Our nearest hospital, Queen’s in Romford, were accepting donations of scrubs and here we were with this money, able to meet their need.

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For £750, I was able to buy 600 metres of scrub fabric, and my plan was to use social media to find volunteers who could sew it into wearable sets. I had no idea whether it would work – I knew nothing about social media (and still don’t) – so my daughters, Catherine and Helen, set up a Google document for volunteers to sign up and shared it on their profiles.

In the first two days, we had over 1,000 volunteers offering to sew and help with distribution, as well as wanting to donate money. Our organisation, For The Love Of Scrubs, was born.

I was bowled over by the response. It is very humbling that so many people want to give freely of their time and resources.

Amongst the volunteers were people who work in the clothing and fashion industry, such as Karen and Fay, who both run small businesses making prom and wedding dresses. The lockdown meant that their companies had stopped overnight. Another contact, Mark, was the ‘Olympic Tailor’ and made costumes for the 2012 London Games. 

Their help has been invaluable. They’ve advised on how to adapt the patterns to make them easier for our volunteer sewers to make and found people to cut the fabric professionally so we could minimise waste.

They were also able to choose the lightest possible fabric. I did some research and discovered that standard-weight scrubs are generally worn in an operating theatre which is air conditioned. On hot Covid-19 wards, however, scrubs are worn under a plastic apron or gown, with a mask or face visor as well. Queen’s told me that some of their medics were losing two to four pounds a day as a result.

Tops also have to be removed before the face visor to avoid contamination, but the standard neck dimension of scrubs tops makes this difficult. Karen, Fay and Mark changed the detailing on the neckline to make it wider and simpler to sew.

Once the patterns are ready, our volunteer co-ordinator Narmeen steps in. One set of volunteers put the patterns into bundles and others drive them to our sewer’s homes.

They range from all ages. One lady emailed to say ‘thank you for allowing a 78-year-old woman to feel useful’. Many are vulnerable and shielding, so they are living alone without contact with family and friends.

Our group provides telephone calls to arrange drop-offs and collections, and while these are done without contact, drivers have been telling me how glad our sewers are to see another person during the week.

I had another message from someone saying that she was only 19 but really wanted to help. I sent her five tops to sew that morning and she phoned just after lunch to say that she had finished. She is now one of our technical sewing experts and quality controllers.

To date, we have 3,000 volunteers helping with pattern cutting, sewing and distribution, and we’ve sent out over 10,000 scrubs sets, shared between Queen’s, King George’s Hospital, Newham Hospital, Winchester Hospital and St Francis Hospice. T

here are a range of colours and the sizes start at small and go up to XXXLarge. Two nurses contacted us to say that they were XXSmall so we’ve also made some patterns for them, too.

The response from the doctors and nurses has been amazing and lots send photos back of them wearing our scrubs with pride.We are now searching for more fabric.

As a nation, we recently celebrated VE day. At the start of that war there were not enough ships, aircraft, guns, soldiers, sailors or airmen but the country pulled together and made up the shortfall.

I see the Covid-19 pandemic as our generation’s war and just as they did over 75 years ago, many people have stepped up to serve. I’m only one part of this. I may have started the organisation but it only grew wings when people volunteered to join and do something together.

Lockdown has been very difficult for so many and lots of people’s mental wellbeing is being greatly affected. I hope our project helps is doing something to overcome this, as well as helping the NHS. It feels like we have captured the modern day equivalent of the blitz spirit.

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