Nursing students lead Operation Bandana

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Robin Carrillo Ortiz, 46, and Erin Price, 35, were hardworking SFCC Level 1 nursing students when life changed for everyone.

When Carrillo Ortiz saw an MSNBC report about a hospital asking people to sew cloth masks, she knew that bandanas (as recommended by the CDC) were not good enough and thought, ‘I can do better than that.’ She started sewing masks on her dining table. These are not masks intended to replace medical gear; rather, they are to help prevent asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus. Her husband drove non-stop with mask deliveries. After the Santa Fe New Mexican ran the story, “Everyday people become local heroes in battle against pandemic,” suddenly more than 100 people were reaching out to her to help make or request masks. She set up an Operation Bandana Facebook page and her sister later created a website.

“Right away, I called Erin, since she has strong organizational skills, and asked if she could help me,” Carrillo Ortiz said. Price began organizing a Google form for people to sign up so more people could get involved. Their mission was to deliver masks without charge to those who needed them the most:  front line workers and vulnerable people, including those in homeless shelters, assisted living centers and senior centers. Deliveries needed to get out to more remote locations such as rural villages, Pueblo communities and the Navajo Nation.

As word got out about the desperate need, the requests snowballed. Sewing machines began humming day and night. Individuals and groups of sewers from throughout the state became involved, including in Clayton, Los Alamos, Gallup, Chama, East Mountains, El Dorado, Aztec, Clayton, and Las Cruces. More than 500 people have volunteered. Price explains, “Some of the first hundred volunteers had to stop when they went back to work, but then there’s usually someone else who will step up. The need continues to grow.”

“I also see this project as honoring a skill – sewing – that is often undervalued or not appreciated. The volunteers donate their best skills to make not only functional, but also quite beautiful masks,” Price said.

The intensity of the work and the feedback from those suffering from covid-19 were often overwhelming. “I used to cry once a day, but now it’s about once a week,” Price said.

The two students finished their spring nursing classes – both with As. But their work with Operation Bandana was not done. It kept accelerating.

Shout-outs from Governor Lujan Grisham, Congressional leaders and state legislators have fueled encouragement. “We appreciate the recognition and support,” Carrillo Ortiz said. “But sometimes we have to laugh. We’re just two people, not some big business.” Listen to the governor’s comments from a May 7 press conference on Facebook (at the 15:30 minute mark). See also the Santa Fe New Mexican’s May 8 story, “Governor gives shout out to pandemic rock stars.”

“Being small has allowed us to be nimble. We don’t have the red tape others are up against to get things done,” Carrillo Ortiz said. They have, however, been able to skillfully coordinate with civic leaders, Tribal leaders, UNM Hospital, Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Presbyterian Hospital, San Juan Regional Medical Center, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Guard, to name just a few. These connections have paid off with huge drives for PPE, sanitation supplies, food, water and sanitation essentials to get out to the Navajo Nation and other underserved communities.

Getting supplies to the Navajo Nation

Operation Bandana led several major donation drives in May and June.

Carrillo Ortiz says she is grateful to all those who stepped up for those efforts. The U.S. Air Force came to assist in lifting pallets of supplies. The National Guard helped move the items to the Navajo chapter houses where they made deliveries.

“It was such an emotional experience. If life were more equitable, these folks would be able to work from the comfort of their homes and not struggle to get water and basic sanitation supplies,” she said.

Carrillo Ortiz heard heartbreaking stories. In one story, a teen’s parents were hospitalized due to covid-19. The teen sought out a test but was unable to get it. That night the teen died.

But Ortiz holds on to the uplifting memories, as well. She said, “So many of the people were so grateful and willing to share with others – not wanting to hoard. We went to one Navajo Nation chapter to drop off tanks of water and the people said, ‘Please give this to others, we have enough.’”

She said the Diné (Navajo) want to do what they can to help each other. “They asked us next time instead of bringing finished masks to bring along kits so their people could sew masks. So, we will bring kits to them.”

Price set up an Amazon wish list for donations to the Navajo Nation and Pueblo communities.

Learning about nursing from a different perspective

As of mid-June, Operation Bandana’s volunteers have produced about 50,000 masks. Additionally, through their collection efforts they have delivered PPE (N-95 masks and face shields), sanitation supplies, food and essential items. 

Masks made by Operation Bandana volunteers

Both Carrillo Ortiz and Price noted that working with Operation Bandana has been a life-changing experience. They are grateful to the support from SFCC, including Director of Nursing Terri Tewart, the Fashion Design lab and with college faculty and staff. 

Before they began Operation Bandana, both students were recognized as leaders on campus. Both are LANL Foundation and SFCC Foundation scholars.   

Carrillo Ortiz, a CNA said, “I chose to get into nursing in part because I was tired of watching fires, earthquakes and other disasters on TV and wanting to help, but not having the skills. I think I believed my role in community health would be limited to short-term events. I imagined my long-term goals to be more the typical role of nurses. I’ve since learned a number of ways where I could make a big impact in the long term, too. I certainly hadn’t seen community health this way before.” 

Price, who previously worked as a CNA, now juggles life as a nursing student and mom. Before the virus forced closure of campus, she worked at Campus Cupboard, the college’s student food pantry, and serves as vice president of the STEM Club, from where she recruited for Operation Bandana. She said her desire is to become a nurse and an engineer.

While both are open to what their future holds, it’s clear that this dynamic duo embodies SFCC’s mission: “Empower students, strengthen community.”