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Tampa General nurses turn surgical mats into sleeping bags for the homeless

The paper-thin material is waterproof and holds heat, “like an envelope that you can slide into.”
Nurses at Tampa General Hospital came up with the idea to turn sterile mats used in the operating room into sleeping bags for the homeless. From left are: Lucy Gurka, Claudia Hibbert, Karley Wright and Nicole Hubbard. [Courtesy of Tampa General Hospital]
Nurses at Tampa General Hospital came up with the idea to turn sterile mats used in the operating room into sleeping bags for the homeless. From left are: Lucy Gurka, Claudia Hibbert, Karley Wright and Nicole Hubbard. [Courtesy of Tampa General Hospital]
Published Nov. 4, 2019

Nicole Hubbard sees them every day in the operating room at Tampa General Hospital.

Paper-thin and made of a blue and pink material that feels like cardboard, the wraps are used to keep instruments sterilized before surgery — and usually thrown away after a single use.

“I thought maybe we could come up with our own kind of recycling initiative," said Hubbard, chief nurse anesthetist at Tampa General. “It was a way to involve everyone in the hospital. The only problem was, I don’t know how to sew.”

Hubbard had seen other hospitals in Florida reuse the sterile wraps by laundering them and sewing them into sleeping bags. They were then donated to groups in the community and passed out to homeless people.

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“I thought, why couldn’t we do the same thing?" Hubbard said.

So she sent out an email to the rest of the staff at Tampa General looking for help. Registered nurses Lucy Gurka and Claudia Hibbert were among the first to respond.

They both loved to sew, and worked together to come up with a pattern for a sleeping bag.

“We brought the material home and set up our sewing machines in my living room,” Gurka said.

The network of people sewing sleeping bags grew fast, said Karley Wright, a registered nurse education specialist. Volunteers who help out at the hospital also pitched in.

“Tampa General does 35,000 surgeries a year. That’s a lot of blue wrap,” she said.

They created more than 100 sleeping bags in a month.

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“It’s not really like a sleeping bag you would think of, but they’re awesome,” said Beth Ross, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Blanket Tampa Bay, which serves the region’s homeless population. “It’s more like an envelope that you can slide into and it offers protection.”

Ross saw the sleeping bags on Facebook and reached out to Tampa General to get involved. Now she hands out the bags to homeless people every Monday night at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Tampa, where she also provides a free hot meal and other supplies. Ross said about 250 people usually show up there.

“In the fall and winter, we start to see more people. The bags offer protection from the elements and they can put their possessions in there,” Ross said. “Some people have small dogs, and they like the bags because their dogs can sleep in there with them.”

The material is waterproof and retains heat, Hubbard said.

She added that the project has touched many different departments in the hospital.

“We’ve all pitched in and it gives us something to feel good about,” she said. “Too often we don’t see each other outside of the operating room.”

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