The Masking Together Challenge
Published in UofTMed Magazine (December 2021)
Story by Emily Kulin
When COVID-19 hit, Elaine Chin (MD ’88, PGME ’89, MBA ’94) experienced a surge of anxiety, due to events from years before.
“In 2003, my then-husband was a physician working at a SARS-designated hospital in Toronto, St. Michael’s Hospital,” says Chin. “I had a family practice office located inside Trillium Health Centre’s Mississauga site — another hot spot.
“Our son, Robert, was four years old. We kept him home from preschool. We self-isolated in the house. My husband ate by himself and slept in a separate room each night for months. And yes, we updated our wills. It was very scary.”
In February 2020, Chin was closely watching COVID-19’s spread and advising her patients on how to manage at home and at their businesses.
At first, the founder of Innovation Health Group, the Bespoke Wellness Club and the Executive Health Centre hoped the virus could be contained.
But, reality quickly set in.
An early sign of trouble came when a patient who was about to start radiation therapy for cancer approached Chin, and told her they were having difficulty sourcing a single box of medical-grade face masks.
By March, Chin was hearing of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) impacting hospital staff.
Chin was horrified at reports of frontline health care workers fashioning gowns out of garbage bags and using scarves as makeshift masks.
“I was crying every night, thinking of them,” says Chin. “Even at the worst of SARS, we never had to deal with anything like this.”
“Robert, who returned home from his American university when borders closed, walked in on me one day as I was watching the news. He told me to pull myself together and that I shouldn’t be crying every night. He told me that because I wasn’t one of these doctors and these weren’t my patients, I should just ignore it.”
“He didn’t understand. These health care workers could die and leave their kids without parents.”
Inspired by the experience of her mask-seeking patient and what was happening in hospitals, Chin decided to transform her rekindled fears and anxiety into action.
“The best way to motivate me,” says Chin, “is to say something can’t be done.”
In April, she launched the Masking Together Challenge in support of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine — now Temerty Faculty of Medicine — and its work to protect frontline health care workers.
The challenge quickly gained support — raising nearly $200,000 within three months.
Funds were deployed to three priorities: providing PPE for health care workers; giving short-term accommodation for medical trainees serving on the frontlines who needed to isolate from family or roommates; as well as funding urgent research into the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19.
But Chin’s commitment to helping frontline workers didn’t end there. It eventually expanded and evolved into two additional campaigns.
In the fall of 2020, Chin launched a second challenge to support what she calls “the invisible frontline” — raising funds for and providing PPE to medical professionals and other staff caring for the homeless and other vulnerable populations in shelters and on the street.
And now, Chin is looking to help once again through her new “Un-masking” Challenge.
Her book Welcome Back! is a wellness guide that provides science-based guidance on how to rebound and thrive in a post-pandemic world.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book will be directed to UNICEF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Fund.
More than 2,000 books have also been generously donated by her clients to frontline health care workers.
“I knew at the beginning of the pandemic that I wouldn’t be on the frontlines. I was working in an office, not in a hospital. But together with my patients, clients and members of the public, we were still able to make a difference,” she says. “Together, we did something bigger than each of us ever could have done alone.”