Michael Wrobel of UHN Emergency Preparedness
(L to R) Michael Wrobel of UHN Emergency Preparedness (EP), Ajay Pillai, Head of International Services at UHN, and Fraser Pennie, also of EP, with a shipment of donated medical supplies. “It’s been overwhelming to see all of this support,” Ajay says. (Photo: UHN)

An Air Canada plane touched down at Toronto Pearson International Airport late one night last week with 20,000 N95 masks. The final destination: UHN's heroic frontline medical staff, who are battling COVID-19.

The arrival of the masks was the result of two weeks of intensive planning by a Chinese-Canadian philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous, and Dr. Gang Zheng, the Associate Research Director of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

The process was set in motion by the donor, who scoured the Chinese medical supply chain to identify a certified N95 respirator factory in Shenzhen. He was able to secure an allocation of 20,000 masks to be produced near the end of March – a major challenge given the unprecedented global shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE).

"The local people in Shenzhen were very supportive and wanted to help Canadians," says Dr. Zheng. "They know of UHN's great reputation as an affiliated hospital of the University of Toronto and wanted to help our frontline staff."

There has been a tremendous outpouring of offers to help coming in to UHN – from PPE and medical supplies, to food gift certificates, hotel rooms and parking, to donations through a fundraising campaign established by the organization's three foundations to support efforts to combat COVID-19.

Smaller donations now being accepted at drop bins

"People are just coming out of the woodwork with offers to do anything they can," says Ajay Pillai, Head of International Services at UHN, who is coordinating the PPE part of the donations. 

Justin Young, Director, Business Development and Consulting, Commercial Strategy at UHN, is overseeing the gift-in-kind stream of donations.

To date, Ajay and his team have been focusing on big PPE and medical supply donations, such as the one from Dr. Zheng and the anonymous donor. In recent days, drop bins have been set up at the University Ave. entrance at Toronto General Hospital and the Nassau St. entrance of Toronto Western Hospital to accept smaller donations.

The big PPE and medical supply donations are coming in through the loading dock at MaRS Discovery District, which is closed. They are then taken upstairs for storage, where they are examined to ensure they meet safety standards, logged and put into inventory for use at sites across UHN.

"It's been overwhelming to see all of this support," Ajay says. "People from all walks of life have been coming together for a common goal, a common cause."

Boxes of masks
This shipment of 20,000 N95 masks warehoused at UHN was secured by a Chinese-Canadian philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous, and Dr. Gang Zheng, (R), the Associate Research Director of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. (Photo: UHN)

With the donation secured by Dr. Zheng, to get the N95 masks shipped to Canada without delay, he reached out to his local Member of Parliament, Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale), who immediately connected him with a representative from Air Canada.

Air Canada's Cargo Services team in Hong Kong joined the team and worked with the donor's customs agent to arrange the shipping details. With their help, the N95 masks were on the next flight to Canada.

N95 masks or respirators, when properly worn, can offer health care workers significant protection against COVID-19 infection. The masks can filter out 95 per cent of airborne particles that are 0.3 microns or larger in diameter — including aerosols containing the virus.

Getting enough PPE, including N95 masks, to protect frontline healthcare workers is a top priority for the Ontario and federal governments.

"We can keep waiting for the masks to arrive, or we can make something happen," said Dr. Zheng. "As the email chain grew longer, it quickly became a team effort."

Dr. Brad Wouters, the Executive Vice President of Science and Research at UHN, said, "It is absolutely inspiring to see the global community come together.

"Thank you to everyone who helped. Your efforts have contributed to the safety of UHN staff on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19."

For donations of PPE and medical equipment, please contact Ajay Pillai, Head of International Services, UHN Solutions. For other donations such as food gift certificates, hotel rooms and parking spaces, please contact Justin Young, Director of Business Development and Consulting.

For financial donations contact Help Fight COVID-19: Support Us Now, a fundraising campaign launched by the Toronto General & Western Foundation, The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation and the Toronto Rehab Foundation.


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