As the world continues in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers are selflessly risking their lives to save others' lives. Stories of their heroics are common and yet still do not cover the breadth of their sacrifice.
However, there is another group of people that also needs attention–cancer patients. These already vulnerable people face an impossible choice: stay home and hopefully stay free from coronavirus, or leave home to receive life-saving treatments.
A recent Lancet study reveals that immunocompromised cancer patients are nearly five times more likely to develop severe complications from COVID-19 than the general population. According to the CDC, cloth masks have been endorsed to limit spread amongst contagious but asymptomatic people. Mask usage is one of the CDC's primary recommendations to flatten the curve.
Three local high school students knew this and saw an opportunity to jump on the challenge. Arjun Moorthy (17), Roshan Pillai (17), and Arun Moorthy (15) initiated a community-driven program, the COVID Supply Initiative (CSI), with the goal to provide masks to every cancer patient in the world.
Instead of taking a break when their school closed, these young men went to work. They began by collecting homemade and donated masks to distribute to patients undergoing chemotherapy at cancer centers across their hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, they have expanded their program to launch a global mask pairing initiative that connects mask makers with the people and institutions that need them most. And the best part about it is, every mask comes with an inspiring message.
“We've always looked to help our community,” Pillai said. “We knew that we couldn't sit idle while people suffer.” Motivated to help as many people as possible, they soon partnered with large oncology groups. They began to distribute masks to Honor Health, Virginia Piper Cancer Center, Ironwood Cancer Center, and Palo Verde Cancer Specialists.
A group of women with breast cancer was among the grateful recipients. One patient reported, “It is very touching and impactful to know someone is thinking of me and those who are also in my position. This act of generosity and seeing youth be proactive in their community gives me hope for the future generation.”
“Seeing the smiles on their faces was definitely a source of motivation for us,” says Arjun Moorthy. In fact, one woman commented on why this act of generosity was even more critical now: “Many of the support groups are closed, and I feel alone going through my journey. Family members are no longer allowed in with me during my treatment, and it gets lonely.”
CSI took these words and decided to broaden their impact. They often hand out masks in-person to patients undergoing chemotherapy and take the time to talk with them. They have also begun including motivational messages with each mask that communicate hope and strength. Messages like “You are a fighter” and “Cancer may have started the fight, but you will win it.”
The masks have been well-received, and patients are often seen smiling when they read the adjoining messages. Some have even reported that when they see the messages, they almost forget where they are sitting.
The teens say the most unique aspect of the mask drive has been how many of the mask donations come from people who know someone undergoing cancer treatment. “The concept of ‘pay it forward' really applies,” commented Arun Moorthy.
It is true that everyone should be using personal protection gear. However, cancer patients are already on a difficult journey that has been made more life-threatening by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Abhishek Patel, a medical oncologist at Virginia Piper Cancer Center, explains, “If patients going through chemotherapy get the virus, they have a higher risk of admission to the Intensive Care Unit and death. Masks are an important tool to keep them safe.”
“We are contacting oncology centers domestically and internationally to let them know there is help and hope,” says Mr. Pillai.
CSI is growing locally, and so is their global pairing program, Mask Pair. Both local collections and the matching program include an inspirational message for every patient. The local masks come with handmade notes straight from Pillai and the Moorthy brothers. Mask Pair donors are given a list of recommended words of encouragement and asked to include a note of their own.
“We want to make mask donation as easy as a click of a button. People with extra masks can go to our website, find where they are needed, and then send directly there,” says Arun Moorthy.
One mask maker in Portugal commented, “It's so nice to see young people acting on great ideas and helping out during the crisis. I'm happy to be a part of it.”
This is not the first time these boys have worked for the benefit of their local community, and it likely won't be the last.
Readers with interest in CSI's movement can go to covidsupplyinitiative.org and donate with a message under the Mask Pair program. Local mask pickups can be coordinated by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.