Sterilizing N-95s with Sun and Shoebox

Ingenuity Inspired by Love and Family

So much of what is best in us is bound up in our love of family that it remains the measure of our stability because it measures our sense of loyalty.
—Haniel Long

To me, family means close relationships with others who are often blood-related but do not have to be. What matters is the relationship—a shared respect, love, loyalty and a deep compassionate care for each other. The relationship provides safety, security and protection. Family relationships are also complicated, and—true—sometimes incredibly frustrating, yet undeniably one  of our greatest blessings. Our families are like sheltering trees because they provide safety and security. All my family, both blood and otherwise, have influenced me in so many aspects and are vital to my well-being, my belonging!

This pandemic has provided some of us the ability to spend more time with family while others have been agonizing over the inability to travel to be with family. In all cases, however, the need to care and ensure safety for the family has been the paramount concern. 

Whatever is the construct of our family, it is one of the beautiful gifts of life. I am grateful for mine!

My colleague and friend, Kevin O’Brien MD, shared his story!

Preserving the gifts – the Power of the Sun

My wife and my children are the most important gifts in my life. I cherish each moment that I spend with them.  My deeds and actions demonstrate the reverence that I have for these blessings.  Each evening, I thank Our Creator for these gifts. I hold the profession of medicine in similar regard.  When I was 5, I decided that I wanted to be a physician because I wanted to help others. Who would have guessed that the love of my life that I would marry 20 years later would have type 1 diabetes? 

I love practicing medicine and caring for patients. I try to spread joy and provide healing to every patient I meet, even if I am unable to cure their illness or relieve their suffering. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of medicine forever, but we must not allow it to change the way we approach patient care or how we care for our loved ones.

Personal protective equipment has become my daily uniform to protect myself, my family, and my patients. Early reports from nursing homes in the state of Washington suggested as many as 50% of patients with COVID-19 are asymptomatic carriers. With this in mind, I have been wearing an N-95 mask while at work for the past 8 weeks.  Not only does my wife have type 1 diabetes, but she also has asthma and hypertension.  She is the last person that I want to see develop the illness.

My employer has graciously supplied me with several N-95 masks; however, I realized that this supply was finite. The needs of my coworkers and protecting the patients we care for carry more precedence over me and my family. For this reason, I have been sterilizing my N-95 masks with a low-tech solution.

Reading early reports from Stanford University, I learned UV light, hydrogen peroxide, or heating masks to 130 degrees for 30 minutes all provided adequate sterilization.  This report was quick to point out, don’t use your oven at home!  Don’t try your microwave either! 

That’s when it dawned on me.  I am blessed to live in Florida. Walking to get the mail without shoes on, I realized how hot my driveway gets in the afternoons. I could place the masks in a clear plastic shoebox upside down. The blue cover would absorb heat and would be further warmed by the concrete on my driveway. The clear plastic would let the sun shine brightly on the masks.

Using a point and shoot thermometer, I discovered that the box would get to as high as 58.6 degrees Celsius or 137.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I heat the masks for several hours each day. I have been recycling the same five masks for the past eight weeks.  The masks have not lost their integrity with my sterilization procedure. 

My unconventional method is one way for me to preserve humanism in medicine and my family gifts—my wife and kids’ health. I hope that my shoebox sterilization procedure can serve as a reminder for all of us to preserve the practice of medicine—for the good of our families, our coworkers, and our patients.

My wish for you is that you do not let the emotion of fear of COVID-19 kick down your door. If you do, common sense, good judgment, and reasoning fly out the window. In this international pandemic, we must be flexible, creative, and collaborative to defeat the unseen enemy.

—Kevin O’Brien MD, FACP, is an internal medicine specialist and professor of medicine in Tampa, Florida.

So much of what is best in us is bound up in our love of family that it remains the measure of our stability because it measures our sense of loyalty.
—Haniel Long

#REFLECT: Family doesn't always mean blood. Who are the souls you consider your family? What 'best' in you comes from their love?


How is the coronavirus changing the way you think of self-care, community and resilience? As this challenging time unfolds, I am posting a quote on this blog with a reflection prompt. Please join in the conversation here or on Twitter with your thoughts or about what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My new book explores these ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.