Volunteers Sew Masks for Hearing-Impaired Patients at Sentara Healthcare

Person wearing mask with clear portion so hearing impaired can see the lips

To help stop transmission of the coronavirus, people are wearing masks everywhere, covering their mouth and nose. For people who are hearing impaired, the new normal of mask-wearing prevents them from reading people’s lips, using visual cues from facial expressions or even knowing when others are talking.

Members of a COVID-19 sewing task force in eastern Virginia found a creative solution. They are making clinical masks with a clear vinyl “window” so patients who are deaf or hearing impaired can read providers’ lips. At Sentara Healthcare, physicians, nurses, therapists, chaplains and social workers are wearing these reusable masks to better communicate with patients. About 150 hearing impaired patients visit one of Sentara’s 12 hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina every month.

The mask force, as people are calling the sewing task force, has donated more than 200 window, or see-through, masks to Sentara — and more than 35,000 masks total to nearly 60 health care and community organizations. The window masks are made of a sturdy fabric called Halyard, used in health care masks and gowns, with sheet vinyl for the windows. These materials are strong enough to withstand stitching and the sterilization process, so the masks that providers receive can be sterilized and reused.

At each Sentara hospital, the window masks are added to “Communication in a Box” kits, which contain tools for staff to talk with patients who are hearing impaired or have limited English proficiency. Staff at Sentara Healthcare say the window masks represent compassion and encouragement during a challenging and, for some, discouraging time.

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