With Ultras On Hold, Gryszowka Makes a Difference One Mask at a Time

Since running her first trail ultramarathon in 2015, Marie Gryszowka has steadily pushed her limits, tackling more mileage, taking on bigger adventures, and never backing down from a challenge. The 2019 season was her biggest yet, with at least seven ultramarathon finishes – including her first two 100-milers.

She had more big plans for 2020. After running a treadmill marathon in February to kick her legs into gear, her racing calendar was set to begin with the Trail Animals Running Club’s (TARC) ‘Don’t Run Boston’ 50K at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass., on April 19, followed by the Seneca 7 relay in New York a week later. Both events have been canceled due to the coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic, and her future races – including the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service’s (BURCS) Notchview Ultra 72-hour race in July, the BURCS Sweltering Summer 8-Hour Ultra in August, and TARC Ghost Train Ultra in October – face an uncertain future. So do numerous races where she’d planned to volunteer, including several BURCS races and the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail.

Marie Gryszowka and coworker
Marie Gryszowka and a co-worker at VCA Lancaster Animal Hospital wear masks that Marie and her mother, Charlene Gryszowka, made by hand. Medical masks are in limited supply worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so handmade masks are helping fill the void. Photo courtesy of Marie Gryszowka.

With racing plans on hold, Gryszowka has stayed extremely busy. The 35-year-old resident of Spencer, Mass., is still getting plenty of trail time while running solo at Wachusett Mountain or Trout Brook Park during the week and then venturing a bit further out on weekends to explore other places.

“I have a goal to hit every Mass state park,” she said.

Additionally, while many across the state are required to work from home due to COVID-19, Gryszowka’s work is considered essential so she is still working full-time as the Kennel Supervisor at VCA Lancaster Animal Hospital in Lancaster, Mass.

“Our routine has changed while at work,” she admitted, “but I work with an awesome team so we are holding up ok.”

The need to provide medical care for dogs, cats, and other animals hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic, but access to necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) has become increasingly difficult as hospitals and other medical facilities around the world compete to procure limited supplies of masks, gloves and other critical supplies. The news media focuses primarily on the lack of resources available to hospitals that treat humans, but animal hospitals need many of those same supplies to protect staff, too.

Medical facemasks made by Marie Gryszowka and her mother, Charlene Gryszowka, hang alongside standard medical masks at VCA Lancaster Animal Hospital. The supply of masks is running low globally, so homemade masks are helping fill the void. Photo courtesy of Marie Gryszowka.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new strategies for optimizing the supply of facemasks available, including reuse of masks by health care professionals. In its Crisis Capacity Strategies, the CDC included several recommendations for when masks are not available, including the use of homemade masks. That policy states the following:

In settings where facemasks are not available, HCP [health care professionals] might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. However, homemade masks are not considered PPE, since their capability to protect HCP is unknown. Caution should be exercised when considering this option. Homemade masks should ideally be used in combination with a face shield that covers the entire front (that extends to the chin or below) and sides of the face.”

Charlene and John Gryszowka
Charlene and John Gryszowka wear facemasks that Charlene made with their daughter, Marie Gryszowka. Photo courtesy of Marie Gryszowka.

With her animal hospital’s supply of masks running low and the ability to resupply growing ever more challenging, Gryszowka saw an opportunity to help. She reached out to her mother, fellow ultrarunner Charlene Gryszowka, and together they hatched a plan.

“Hospitals both human and animal are experiencing an issue ordering and obtaining PPE to keep staff safe,” she said. “My personal animal hospital along with my mother’s work (a small three-doctor practice where she is the lab technician) all needed PPE with the looming shortage. So we went to work.”

Following a pattern that Marie found on Pintrest, as well as an instructional video, they began making masks with a filter pocket to cover the mouth and nose and straps to tie the masks into place.

“We have been giving masks out to anyone we know in the field,” she said. “This has included all staff at my place, her work, the technicians that are currently caring for my father during chemo, and friends on Facebook needing masks.”

They’ve made around 15 masks so far, but their work has just begun.

Homemade medical facemasks made by Marie Gryszowka and her mother, Charlene Gryszowka. They’ve made around 15 masks so far, with plans to make several more to help fill the gap in the global supply caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Marie Gryszowka.

“We plan to make a ton more,” she said. “Supplies are starting to get harder to find so we had to change up the style we were making.”

While making face masks is a new challenge for Gryszowka, it isn’t the first time she has used her craftwork to make a difference. She also enjoys crocheting, and she uses that talent to improve the lives of others.

“I crochet hats while watching TV or studying to put out all winter in random places for whoever needs them,” she said.

In addition to giving away the hats she crochets to benefit the less fortunate, she also sells some of the items she makes, though the proceeds also go to good causes.

“I also do a fundraiser selling higher-end scarves and then donate the money to my favorite animal sanctuary,” she said, noting that in 2019 she raised enough money to donate $500 to her favorite animal sanctuary, Tamerlane Farm.

Whether it’s crocheting hats and scarves, making masks for medical professionals during a time when supplies are limited, or volunteering at an aid station during a trail ultra to support people in their pursuit of big goals, Gryszowka said she simply enjoys using her time and talent to make the world a better place.

“I honestly just really like helping people who need it,” she said. “If I can help even one person it’s worth it.”

Marie Gryszowka, right, enjoys some miles on the trail at Wright Locke Farm with Tiffany Fischer at the TARCkey Trot 6-Hour Ultra in November 2019. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

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