Medical center crowdsources drain bag project

Scores of residents offered to make these homemade fabric drain bags after staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Plastic, Reconstructive and Cosmetic Surgery center in Colchester put out a call on Facebook. (Photo by Sam Heller)

Sewing enthusiasts and craftspeople across Chittenden County volunteered their talents this week in a spontaneous show of support for breast cancer patients.

The countywide effort came in response to a solitary Facebook post by Anna Raymond, an employee at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Plastic, Reconstructive and Cosmetic Surgery center in Colchester.

“We are in desperate need of drain bags for our breast cancer/breast reconstruction patients. We can’t seem to keep up with demand,” Raymond said in the Aug. 15 post. “Are you handy with a sewing machine and have some spare fabric that feels good against the skin? We would LOVE it if you could lend us a hand and donate some drain bags!”

A drain, nurse Jane LeGard-Ernstof explained at the clinic, is a plastic bulb-shaped reservoir attached to a hose. The hose is sutured under the skin to siphon fluid away from the surgical incision. Drain bags are cloth pouches that protect the drains and hold them close to the patient’s body.

“We have breast cancer patients that require sometimes four to six drains postoperatively, and those can be hard to manage,” LeGard-Ernstof said. “They need a little bag sometimes to hold those drains, to keep them from going everywhere.”

The clinic tries to keep about 30 drain bags on hand at all times, but practice supervisor Jen Tedeschi said keeping them in stock can be difficult. Unlike drains themselves, drain bags are not available at medical supply outlets.

“They’re generally homemade,” Tedeschi said. “I’ve ordered some on Etsy before, and Amazon sometimes sells them, but I don’t know anywhere that’s mass producing them.”

When the clinic found itself short on drain bags last week, Tedeschi and her colleagues decided to crowdsource the equipment via social media. Several staff members made solicitations on Facebook, but Raymond’s took off more rapidly than anybody at the surgical center could have predicted.

  Scores of respondents commented on the post, pledging their skills and supplies. Hundreds more reposted it on their own timelines. Within 48 hours, it was shared over 500 times.

“It went Vermont viral,” LeGard-Ernstof said.

Milton resident Bobbie Moser was one of the first Facebook posters to volunteer her services. Her first drain bag, a colorful floral number made with leftover fabric from her days working with the Burlington Futon Company, took her about 10 minutes and didn’t require any shopping, she said.

“We have boxes and boxes of fabric,” she said, “so when I saw that, I thought, ‘That’ll kill two birds with one stone.’”

Moser said she doesn’t have any close relatives who have had breast reductions or suffered from breast cancer. She had never heard of drain bags before reading Raymond’s post.

“I know people, plenty of people, I think many of us do, who would have needed these,” she said, “but I don’t have any sort of personal connection. It’s just that I can sew, and not everyone can.”

Other commenters who lacked the sewing experience or equipment sought other ways to contribute. Some tried to spread the word by tagging friends whom they thought would be willing and able to help. Others, who had never sewn before or hadn’t for years, asked friends and relatives to teach them how to make the bags themselves.

Staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Plastic, Reconstructive and Cosmetic Surgery center in Colchester pose with fabric drain bags for patients. (Photo by Sam Heller)

Still others volunteered to deliver fabric or ribbons so the sewers wouldn’t have to worry about tracking down materials.

“I’m an independent retailer for LuLaRoe and have tons of damages that could be used for fabric,” one woman wrote. “I don’t sew, but could donate the fabric if it could be used!”

Essex resident Lori King, the surgery center’s patient service specialist, said the center began accepting donations of fabric and sewing supplies after it received a call from a woman whose mother had recently died of cancer.

“Her mother sewed, and she has tons of material left over,” King said, “so she was going to bring in material to donate. If somebody wants to make bags, then they can come and pick up some material.”

Because Raymond’s post was shared over 500 times, it’s impossible to quantify how many people have commented on it in total. By press time, 94 people had commented on the original post alone.

“We were all just really excited that this took off the way it did,” Tedeschi said. “It’s really heartening for us to really see that feedback from the community and to share with our patients that they’re supported by so much more than the medical center.”