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Student Health Services nurse practitioner finds creative way to help community during COVID-19 pandemic

Theresa Betz holding a homemade mask.

When UB nurse practitioner Theresa Betz was looking for a way to make a difference during these uncertain times, she decided to make face coverings. She stopped counting after her 400th mask. Photo: Douglas Levere

By BARBARA BRANNING

Published July 17, 2020

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“I feel like I’m helping the community one mask at a time. ”
Theresa Betz, nurse practitioner
Student Health Services

Like so many people, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Theresa Betz felt helpless.

But she found relief in something that had provided an outlet for her since childhood: her sewing machine.

“I thought, what can I do to make a difference during this time?” says Betz, a nurse practitioner at Student Health Services.

 So, with a cousin in Asheville, N.C., she began sewing face coverings.

“We tried several different patterns, but I finally developed my own after the paper surgical masks that we use at work,” says Betz, who stopped counting after making her 400th mask.

It wasn’t an especially easy feat for the Buffalo native. “People were scrambling for materials and materials were in short supply, much like toilet paper was,” she recalls. She was able to procure some materials online, but it wasn’t enough to support her for her pandemic cottage industry.

A pitch for donations on Facebook turned the tide. “Soon, material took over my house. It was in the living room, the dining room and the family room,” she says. Surrounded by so much fabric, she set a goal to make 20 masks a day.

From masks she pivoted to headbands, knitted hats and scarves, soup cozies, kitchen towels and other items that she donates to people in need. “My COVID-19 tally is 400-plus masks, 100-plus headbands, 50-plus hats and scarves, 40 soup cozies and 50-plus kitchen towels,” she says.

Betz has also donated a box of handmade ear protector headbands to Buffalo Hearing & Speech Center. The bands are designed to help people who use hearing aids to wear masks.

“I have asked that people pay it forward, barter for something for me or simply pray for all of us affected by this,” she says. In return, she has received tree ornaments, candy bars and gift cards from the grateful recipients of her handiwork.

Betz was 8 years old when her aunt taught her to sew. By the time she was in eighth grade, she was sewing for other people — tailoring clothes and making flower girl dresses, stuffed toys and other items. She is still using the sewing machine she bought when she was 14.

Betz’ colleague at Student Health Services, Sheilla Thomas, says that her co-worker’s gifts go well beyond the needle and thread. “She is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced nurse practitioners at our clinic,” Thomas says. “She is a tireless giver, teaching CPR to multiple divisions on campus and making care calls on our freshman class.”

In addition, Betz has beautified Michael Hall with a vegetable and flower garden, and serves as a precept for the School of Nursing.

Betz has a BNS in nursing, an MSN in nursing administration, and a Family Nurse Practitioner 3 from UB. She was inspired to go into nursing by another aunt, who was one of the first nurse anesthetists in the Buffalo area.

It was a natural fit for Betz, who says she cares about people and takes the time to listen to what they say. “Sometimes the communication might be in body language or in silence, so I tune in to the real things they are talking about.”

In her role at the clinic, Betz says she provides physical, emotional and supportive care to UB students. “I will see patients for almost every medical condition,” she says. “I offer emotional support when a student is under stress or when tragedy strikes them. I will always answer an email when a student needs some advice.”

COVID-19 changed many things, but it did not change Betz’s concern for her patients.

“My number one goal, before and after the pandemic hit, is to provide the most comprehensive health care for the student in a safe environment,” she says.

Still, she says, being a health care provider during the coronavirus crisis has been a challenge. “It has been very hard on everyone and everyone has been affected by this,” says Betz, who has known several victims of the virus.

“I really think that this whole crisis would be easier on people if they would do something nice for their family, their neighbors or even for someone they don’t know, and then have them pay it forward,” she says.

Betz says she will continue to make masks and give them away for as long as her fabric supply holds out.

“I feel like I’m helping the community one mask at a time,” she says.