Caring on the COVID-19 front lines: “I rallied colleagues all over the world to help me make over 2,100 cloth masks”
When Melissa Surdez received an urgent call from her physician sister who was battling the pandemic on the front lines in New Jersey and facing a mask shortage, she promised to help—and tapped Johnson & Johnson’s thousands of employees to join her cause.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people from all walks of life, but its toll has been particularly tough on frontline healthcare workers—especially those who have been caring for patients without enough personal protection equipment to safeguard themselves.
It’s something Melissa Surdez, Head, Global Experience, Johnson & Johnson Human Resources, knows firsthand: Her sister, Jessica Israel, M.D., is helping to lead the COVID-19 medical response for RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey in her area of expertise of geriatrics and palliative care.
When Jessica, who goes by the nickname Jessi, shared her worries about a mask shortage, Surdez took action to make sure her sister got the supplies her fellow healthcare professionals so desperately needed.
But what makes this story all the more special is that Surdez didn’t do it alone—she organized a veritable army of her fellow Johnson & Johnson colleagues to be a part of her large-scale mask-making mission.
As the first installment in our “Caring on the COVID-19 Front Lines” series of profiles of admirable employees, we asked Surdez to share her story of truly living up to the company’s Credo mission of putting the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.
Melissa Surdez: My older sibling, Jessi, is more than just my sister. She’s my hero, my rock and my best friend. We lost our parents young in life—our mom died of breast cancer at 40, and our father of diabetes complications at 54—so we’ve always instinctively known that we needed to lean on each other to survive. We’re inseparable—we live a mile away from each other, and speak on the phone every day.
So when Jessi—who works as the Senior Vice President for Geriatrics and Palliative Care at RWJBarnabas Health—reached out to me for help, I was there for her in an instant.
Jessi’s job now is to help coordinate how the vast network of hospitals that are part of the RWJBarnabas Health system respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes assisting front line staff.
When she called me on her way home from work a few weeks ago, I knew from the sound of her anxious voice that things were really bad—and were only going to get worse. If it were possible to hear weight on someone’s shoulders, that’s what it sounded like. My heart sank, and I felt helpless.
I asked her what I could do to help, figuring she’d ask me to do a few grocery runs or make some meals. But after a few minutes of speaking with her, it was clear that what she needed immediately was masks—hundreds of them. Homemade masks help preserve medical-grade masks for where they are needed most, and she wanted to know if I could ask my friends if they knew how to sew.
Once she planted that seed, I knew exactly what I needed to do.
I’ve been working in the human resources department at Johnson & Johnson for 19 years, and I just knew my colleagues would step up to help because they were all super supportive when I went through a hellish experience in my personal life several years ago.
Mobilizing during a personal crisis—and a pandemic
In 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I had to take six months off work for a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and the removal of my ovaries. Just when I thought I was out of the woods, it came back in 2013—with a vengeance. This time, it was stage 4 and had metastasized into my liver and every bone in my body. It was terrifying.
Since then, I’ve kept my cancer at bay by visiting a local infusion center every three weeks for medications that help keep my tumors small and contained. I also get full body scans every three months. I’ll need to do all of this for the rest of my life.
Jessi has, of course, been by my side through it all. But during that traumatic period of my life, I was scared and assumed that my coworkers would just forget about me. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I got calls, cards, magazine subscriptions, flowers and so much food—Philadelphia soft pretzels, baby back ribs from Ohio, danishes from Wisconsin, you name it. It showed me—and my husband, Lance, my son, Quinn, now 21, and my daughter, Brielle, now 17—what a celebration of love looks like. I will never forget that during my darkest moment, the Johnson & Johnson community went above and beyond to lift my spirits.
So when Jessi told me that she needed masks, I got to work that evening on crafting an email to 300+ employees all over the globe. I included a message from Jessi and a link to a video on how to make masks in 10 to 15 minutes. Then I hoped for the best.
Sure enough, within an hour or two, so many responses poured in that I almost wept with joy.
In the first two weeks alone, I collected about 1,000 masks that I donated to Jessi, who then distributed them to hospitals and communities with the greatest need. Some healthcare workers are wearing them over their regular masks, and patients are using them too.
Some promised to sew, some wanted to help buy fabric and elastic, some donated money for supplies, some wanted to help transport supplies—and one supply chain expert even set up a spreadsheet to keep track of who needed what. Some also forwarded the email to their friends and Johnson & Johnson retirees.
Within three days, we had a plan in place. Soon, people all over the country—and as far as Singapore—were mailing me dozens of homemade, washable, cotton masks in plain white, in camouflage, and in Wonder Woman patterns. One guy even bought a 3-D printer and started printing them.
I tried to get in on the action myself by buying a sewing machine on Amazon, but I quickly realized: I’m a coordinator, not a sewer. I tried to channel my inner eighth-grade self from home economics class and follow the directions, but somehow, I ended up sewing the fabric to the machine. Oops.
Luckily, everyone else came through in a huge way. In the first two weeks alone, I collected about 1,000 masks that I donated to Jessi, who then distributed them to hospitals and surrounding communities with the greatest need. Some healthcare workers are wearing them over their regular masks, since our donations are washable, and patients are using them too.
Sewing through it together
The incredible response just reinforces for me that my colleagues at Johnson & Johnson are part of the fabric of my life.
Over the years, we’ve all shared the good and the bad, ranging from our kids’ college acceptances to our beloved pets dying. And having them with me throughout this whole experience has made me feel less alone.
I also feel so grateful to be able to take some of that weight off my sister’s and other frontline health workers’ shoulders. We’re going to keep at this project for as long as Jessi and her team need masks.
Someday, when we can have parties again, Jessi and I will invite everyone over to my home for cheese and crackers. We’re both savoring that moment when we get to thank everyone in person, and not be afraid to hug them.
In the meantime, we’ll keep sewing masks, and getting through this together.