Finding Solutions When the Need Is Great
A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic put the lives of frontline health workers at risk and sparked a chaotic competition by health systems, schools, businesses and state and local governments to find and buy the masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies they desperately needed.
Niral Patel, MS, DPM ’22, was among hundreds of RFU community members who found ways to help. He was a second-year podiatric medical student in February 2020 when he helped found Fabric Medical as part of a small team determined to help existing textile manufacturers in China produce and export FDA-approved KN95 respirators, with the goal of providing them to U.S. organizations in need.
“The need was dire,” Mr. Patel said. “Consumer demand was high, but retail supply remained very limited. We donated what we could.”
The fledgling company prioritized safety. It gathered and shared feedback from health workers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Texas to improve the standard KN95 design — a head and neckband ensured a tighter seal over ear-loop designs — and sent sample masks for testing to a CDC-approved lab in Ohio.
Mr. Patel studied by day and by night spent hours on the phone with factories in China. A disrupted supply chain posed the greatest challenge. The team had to plan dimensions of shipping boxes down to a fraction of an inch for freight transport by land, air and sea.
“I did many years of self-study on starting a business before COVID, but that was negligible compared to what I learned in the first six months of Fabric Medical.”
“Logistics was a huge problem,” said Mr. Patel, a native of Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University. “It was difficult to get things across the ocean. But we had a good relationship with shipping companies, and we were able to get masks in faster than most — in weeks rather than months.”
Fast-forward to spring 2022. Mask mandates have eased. KN95 and N95 face mask availability and pricing have improved. Fabric Medical handles several orders for masks, gowns, gloves and other PPE per month, down from 30. It has shifted its business model, seeking out customers in the market for PPE and connecting them with inventory from factories across Asia and the United States and facilitating sales negotiations.
“I did many years of self-study on starting a business before COVID, but that was negligible compared to what I learned in the first six months of Fabric Medical,” he said. “I’m looking forward to residency and I am excited to practice. I also want to explore the entrepreneurial possibilities within health care. We need to find ways to improve health outcomes — and healthcare access.”
Mr. Patel began his podiatric medical and surgical residency at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis in June.
Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.