Mask Inventor, Innovation Leader: Meet Nurse Executive Tommye Austin
Nurse leader Tommye Austin, PhD, MBA, NEA-BC has had a trailblazing nursing career and the adventure isn’t over yet. After serving for several years as the Senior Vice President and Chief Nurse Executive at University Health in San Antonio, Texas, Tommye can now add a new role to her CV: nurse innovator. In April 2020, she quickly rose to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and combined her insights as a nurse, her knowledge of effective filtration and love of quilting to create much-needed respiratory masks for herself, her family, her colleagues and others in need in her community.
The Johnson & Johnson Notes on Nursing team recently spoke with Tommye to learn more about her “labor of love,” the mask she created to help protect her colleagues and her community from COVID-19, and hear the advice she has for nurse innovators with great ideas of their own.
J&J Nursing: What inspired you to develop your respirator mask during the start of the pandemic, and what is the current status of your solution?
Tommye: In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, our nurses were afraid to go into patients’ rooms because of the unknown nature of the virus. When I heard that bandanas and handkerchiefs were being suggested as possible alternatives to masks due to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, I knew I had to act quickly to help protect my workforce and those close to me. Creating my mask design was a “labor of love,” a culmination of my insights that have made me the nurse that I am today.
To create my TM2020 mask, which fits and resembles an N95 mask, I channeled all that I learned about mask wearing from my role as the executive of perioperative and sterile processing services. I decided to use surgical draping and a bungee cord for around the head instead of over the ears, which is much more comfortable when wearing a mask for long hours. The bungee cord also added strength to reduce the risk of the mask breaking. I also knew a type of design with an air pocket also could offer necessary breathability space as the mask was being worn for long periods of time.
When it came time to find something that worked for the filtration, I remembered a conversation I had a long time ago with my late husband. I once purchased some cheap air conditioner filters for our home, and he told me to only buy electrostatic air filters because of their ability to capture pollen, dust and mold. When I went shopping at the hardware store, I remembered my husband’s “electrostatic” guidance and sought those filters out. I ended up cutting those filters out of the frames they came in and used the filter material for the inside of the mask. Research and testing later found that it was an ingenious move—one of my TM2020 mask prototypes had a filtration rate of 97.5 percent, compared to most N95 masks that have a 95 percent filtration efficiency. I have since transitioned to a filter material that is designed for masks.
In just under a year, when access to quality N95 masks was virtually impossible, my team of sewers and I made over 6,000 masks for frontline health workers, community members, and even people who wrote to me asking for masks for themselves and their families. I continue to be in awe of the support and celebration my mask has received, and how many nurses have been inspired by my efforts. I'm proud to share that Careismatic Brands, maker of Cherokee Scrubs, has purchased my patent, and my mask design is on its way to the FDA for approval. FDA approval could make my mask more accessible in COVID-19 and beyond, and I look forward to seeing the impact it may have, especially in developing countries, because it’s reusable and affordable.
J&J Nursing: As a Senior Vice President and Chief Nurse Executive at University Health, you are certainly a role model to many nurses and other healthcare workers—especially nurses of color. How do you work to drive a culture of innovation for all nurses?
Tommye: The beauty of nursing is that we honor, respect and listen to each other. It’s what makes us great patient care providers and great innovators. Nurses are so inventive, but they don’t always have the platforms or support available to fully develop their ideas. Knowing this, a goal of mine is to offer more resources for nurses who want to be innovators, so they can leverage their creative juices and insights to move their solutions forward. I want to create an environment at University Health where all nurses and clinicians, regardless of background or experience level, can have the opportunity to offer up their ideas and for them to succeed. Once COVID-19 begins to calm down, I’d love to further nurture a culture of innovation by encouraging our nurses to attend innovation opportunities, starting a writing club for nurses, facilitating an open exchange of ideas and resources, implementing nurse residencies in innovation and establishing working groups and funds to help propel some of these ideas forward.
I think it’s important to create pathways for innovation because nurses shouldn’t feel like they need to leave nursing to be innovative. If we empower nurses to pursue their ideas within their health system, they will feel more connected and valued and will not leave the bedside. I’m committed to helping the next generation of nurses be successful. I will continue to advocate for placing nurses in key leadership roles and uplift nurse innovators however I can. At this stage of my career, it’s the best part of the job—seeing the spark of inspiration and innovation being lit in my nursing workforce and beyond.
J&J Nursing: Do you have any words of advice for nurses who are looking to develop their innovation skills?
Tommye: When I was in high school, one of the guidance counselors told me I shouldn’t bother continuing my education. But my mother, my biggest cheerleader and best friend, worked two jobs so that I could attend the University of Texas, Austin and after moving to Houston, I worked full-time as a patient care assistant on the weekends to help obtain my first nursing degree, a Bachelor of Science from the University of Texas, Houston Cizik School of Nursing. Once I got my nursing degree, I helped support my mom as she worked to become a licensed vocational nurse herself. I consider myself very blessed, and my path to nursing taught me early on the importance of reaching back and helping to pull others forward.
To nurses who are thinking of developing an innovation, my advice is to find someone who is willing to mentor you or find a partner in an area of expertise you need. To me, education is an equalizer. It will uplift you and your family. Today’s nurses can also be tech enthusiasts, computer scientists, design thinkers, entrepreneurs and more.
Also, know that many people care about nurses and want your ideas to succeed. I am fortunate enough to live in a city where we have a large-scale research institute where experts helped walked me through how to move my mask design forward—and if you can reach out to a similar research institute or find resources near your home then do it. There are people who can help nurses through the process of getting a patent and moving your solution forward, and most importantly, I’ve found that they can be patient and kind.
If you believe in yourself, other people will believe in you, too. You’re inevitably going to have failures, but it is important to keep moving forward. Don’t stop, don’t give up and keep your dream alive!
Editor’s Note: During the spring of 2020 when the pandemic was surging and there was much uncertainty around PPE, Tommye’s health system, University Health System, shared the pattern and face mask instructions for her TM2020 for those interested in making face masks to wear for non-commercial personal use. Public health experts do not consider homemade masks to be effective PPE inside clinical environments or for those caring directly for people with COVID-19. The instruction manual was provided for non-commercial, recreational purposes only and is not a guarantee of health or wellness or prevention of illness.
To view Tommye’s TM2020 Mask Pattern, visit here.
Photography credit: Mark Greenberg for University Health