Practice is a key part of surgical training. A young surgeon wants to be ready for anything and needs to get the intricate steps of a surgical procedure deep into the muscle memory. That means practicing a given procedure hundreds of times. The Department of Surgery’s Surgical Skills Simulation and Education Center at the Keck School of Medicine of USC offers a venue in which full surgical teams can rehearse operative procedures, but that intensive practice requires personal protective equipment. Lots of protective equipment.

“Even before the pandemic, we needed PPE for our medical students, residents, and fellows,” said Angela Martinez, the clinical laboratory manager for the Skills Center.

Tiffany Barajas, the lab technician at the Skills Center, explained: “Even in a simulation, there are situations where a student might get contaminated. If you put a hospital-grade waterproof gown on, a KN-95 mask and the right eye protection, you’re safe.”

The pandemic made PPE even more vital — and harder to get. Hospital-grade PPE naturally went to COVID teams or to surgical teams working on patient procedures, and the Skills Center team quickly gave what hospital-grade equipment they had to Keck Hospital. The PPE that was available to buy had jumped in price — 30% more than what it had been before the pandemic, according to Martinez. “And this equipment is not re-usable,” she pointed out. “Most of it we have to throw away after each use.”

Enter Ace Uniforms and the Helping Hands Senior Foundation.

Ace Uniforms has been providing uniforms and equipment for the medical, law enforcement and hospitality industries since they opened in 1958. When the pandemic hit, their hospitality orders dwindled and they quickly pivoted to distributing PPE instead, doing their best to help fill the sudden nationwide need. After a burst of orders, they found themselves with a surplus.

“We knew there had to be a good use for this,” said Rory Staiger, the CEO of Ace Uniforms. “We didn’t want this equipment collecting dust in one of our warehouses.”

The business began putting the word out, and Melissa Hartman at Helping Hands Los Angeles, a volunteer organization for seniors, suggested the Skills Center.

“We knew right away that we wanted to do this,” Staiger said. “Keck Medicine aligns with our values and is one of the core groups we serve. Everything just lined up.”

“It was perfect timing,” Martinez said.

Barajas worked with Ace Uniforms to coordinate a drop-off — and she and Martinez were stunned when three full trucks of PPE showed up.

“The truck containers were filled to the roof!” Martinez said. She and Barajas scrambled to find space for three truckloads of gowns, KN-95 masks, alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer.

All told, Ace Uniforms had donated $450,821 worth of equipment. It went to immediate good use. “We’ve already run more than 50 procedures with the equipment they donated,” Barajas said. “This will help us run hundreds of simulations.”

Staiger was pleased to learn that the PPE donation would be used to train young surgeons who will eventually move on to save lives all over the country.

“That’s so great to hear,” he said. “Everyone at Ace will be ecstatic when they learn what their donation is enabling!”

The donation will also help the Skills Center in the long run. Martinez pointed out that since she doesn’t need to purchase expensive PPE for some time, she is able to budget for items such as surgical equipment, and much-needed items for all aspects of surgical training.

Recently, Martinez and Barajas traveled to Ace headquarters in San Diego to deliver a plaque honoring the donation.

“This will help us keep our students safe, offer the best possible training and improve patient outcomes in the future,” she said. “That’s what really matters.”

— Lex Davis