How a suburban nurse is turning surgical tray wraps into blankets for Chicago's homeless

  • Material that had wrapped surgical instruments trays at Elmhurst Hospital has been sewn into blankets to donate to people who are homeless in a project led by nurse anesthetist Audrey Less. Less collected the material in her parents' dining room in Burr Ridge before her mother and aunt worked to sew it into blankets.

    Material that had wrapped surgical instruments trays at Elmhurst Hospital has been sewn into blankets to donate to people who are homeless in a project led by nurse anesthetist Audrey Less. Less collected the material in her parents' dining room in Burr Ridge before her mother and aunt worked to sew it into blankets. Courtesy of Audrey Less

  • For seven days, medical professionals working in the operating room at Elmhurst Hospital saved the material used to wrap trays of surgical instruments, while nurse anesthetist Audrey Less collected it to be sewn into blankets for people who are homeless.

    For seven days, medical professionals working in the operating room at Elmhurst Hospital saved the material used to wrap trays of surgical instruments, while nurse anesthetist Audrey Less collected it to be sewn into blankets for people who are homeless. Courtesy of Audrey Less

 
 
Updated 12/26/2019 10:13 AM

Everyone who works in a hospital operating room knows what a surgical tray wrap is.

It's the thick, waterproof stuff that keeps surgical instruments sterile, and once it's used, it's thrown away.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hardly anyone who works outside of a hospital operating room knows what it is, but that didn't stop one medical professional at Elmhurst Hospital from putting the material to greater use.

Audrey Less, a nurse anesthetist, had seen stories from other hospitals across the country about creative reuse of surgical tray wraps, and this holiday season, she worked to bring the project home.

"I was looking for something good to put out into the world," said Less, 34, of Clarendon Hills. "I thought, 'This is the time to do it.'"

Her effort started about a year after something tragic, the day in November 2018 when her cousin, pharmacy resident Dayna Less, was one of three people killed when a gunman opened fire at Mercy Hospital in Chicago.

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"The bad can seem overwhelming at times," Less said, reflecting on her cousin's death.

So she launched what became the Threads of Care Project and enlisted her co-workers in the operating room at Elmhurst Hospital to collect surgical tray wraps for a week. She then recruited her mother and aunt to sew the material into 170 blankets and mats of various sizes to be donated -- the large ones to Southwest Chicago Homeless Services and any small remaining scraps to the Hinsdale Humane Society.

Immediately, Less said, she was enthused by how much her colleagues contributed, even while working full-tilt at challenging jobs. One surgical technician helped her connect with Southwest Chicago Homeless Services, a place where her grandmother volunteers and where the wraps-turned-blankets would be put to good use.

Andy Tremble, director of the operating room, sterile processing and anesthesia at Elmhurst Hospital, got on board, too, supporting what he called "the effort to make a difference in people's lives."

"I think it was a good example of taking an everyday surgical item and finding a new use for it to benefit the homeless population of Chicago," Tremble said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Housekeeping staff at the hospital got involved, allowing Less and her co-workers to collect the surgical wraps inside a large bin in a hallway for a week.

"Everyone was just really excited about the project," she said. "That was obviously heartwarming."

Less said she's set to deliver the new blue blankets and mats Friday to clients of Southwest Chicago Homeless Services, whom she hopes will see an immediate use for the warm, waterproof material of the surgical wraps.

"The thought was that they can create a barrier between themselves and the elements," Less said.

After the first delivery is made, Less said, she wants to make Threads of Care an annual project. She also hopes to help hospitals find ways for nontoxic materials that are often discarded -- just like the surgical tray wraps -- to be reused in other places for other purposes.

"I think there is great opportunity to reuse nonmedical waste items for other purposes," Tremble, the operating room director, said, "and I think the creativity of this particular example speaks to that."

Anyone interested in the Threads of Care reuse project can contact Less at threadsofcareproject@gmail.com.

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