Nurses: Made to Create

In the early stages of COVID-19 when PPE was scarce, nurse Tommye Austin sprang into action to protect her frontline colleagues—creating a mask with surgical draping and filters.

On her inspiration for developing a respirator mask:

“In the beginning of the 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 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.”

Tommye and her sewing team have made more than 6,000 masks for frontline healthcare workers and community members.

Tommye Austin, PhD, MBA, NEA-BC, has served for several years as the Senior VP and Chief Nurse Executive at University Health in San Antonio, Texas.

This excerpt from a page on Johnson & Johnson’s Nurses Leading Innovation website is part of several profiles of Black nurses, present and past, who’ve impacted nursing. Read more about Tommye Austin and other nurses of color at Nurses You Should Know: Helping Change the Nursing Narrative.

Do you have a story to tell about your nursing experiences during COVID-19 or as a nursing innovator? We want to hear from you! Email your story to


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