Daughter makes hundreds of face masks in memory of RN mom

Fabric from Brenda Russ, who died of cancer, now helps protect her co-workers

Amber Williams, daughter of Brenda Russ, sits with a sewing machine behind her

If she had tried, Amber Williams probably couldn’t have thought of a more perfect tribute to her mother than the massive sewing project she took on after her mother’s death.

Williams credits the coronavirus pandemic as her inspiration.

Because of visitor restrictions to prevent spreading COVID-19, Williams was the lone family member by her mother’s side in the hospital as her mother fought terminal pancreatic cancer for about two weeks longer than expected, after her whole family had come to say goodbye. She had been diagnosed just a little over a year before.

As she sat with her mom in the hospital room day after day, Williams watched a lot of news. She was moved by the desperation she saw of health care workers in large cities needing protective equipment to care for waves of patients, but she felt powerless to help. Then she remembered her stacks of floral fabric.

Williams’ mom, Brenda Russ, had been a sewer and crafter who passed her skills on to her daughter. She also gave Williams, toward the end of her life, fabric in the floral prints Russ always loved.

Williams, who had no idea what to do with the fabric at the time, now realized she could turn it into masks to help keep people safe during the pandemic. The kind of people her mother cared about deeply and would have been working to protect herself, if cancer hadn’t taken her away from her calling.

Russ had been a registered nurse for nearly 40 years. Her most recent position as director of quality and compliance for Sanford Thief River Falls, in northwestern Minnesota, focused on the safety of Sanford Health patients, employees and visitors. And if Russ had been well enough to work alongside her front-line colleagues during the pandemic, Williams believes one thing would be still be the same.

“I know that whether she was here or not, I would have been making these masks because she wouldn’t have had time to, but she would have insisted that they get done,” she said.

Keeping Brenda Russ’ co-workers safe

Williams sends the masks — 400 and counting — to people and places significant in Russ’ life.

“Mom would have wanted to keep the Thief River Falls nurses safe,” she said.

Williams made a list of others to send masks to “like Mom would’ve.” Those include doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Russ spent her final days near her daughter’s town of residence. Nurses who Russ previously had worked with in Cumberland, Wisconsin, also received masks. Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, where Russ has family, is also on the list.

Learn more: Latest CDC guidelines on wearing masks

Russ’ close co-worker Alicia Haviland cherishes the mask she received from Williams in memory of Russ.

“She was truly a beacon of light for many people here,” said Haviland, who works in education and development for Sanford Health in Thief River Falls.

Russ is missed, Haviland said — and not just for her wry sense of humor that would set Haviland to chuckling.

“She was an amazing woman at work,” Haviland said. Russ worked with grants and policies, coming up with strategies and then explaining them for everyone to understand easily. And she had an ability to pull eclectic people together.

Laying groundwork for COVID-19 response

Brenda Russ was relied on as the person with all the answers, Haviland said. She credits Russ with laying the groundwork that helped Sanford Thief River Falls cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’re using all the preparation that she had the foresight to see many years ago,” Haviland said.

“We’re utilizing a lot of what she did create, but we’re also missing a huge piece of being able to walk in her office. And that’s very hard on all of us. And that’s why, when Amber made the masks for us, they’ve been precious.”

Haviland describes the ways her co-workers have reacted to receiving them: “Sometimes there were tears. Sometimes there were moments of quiet. Sometimes they would just have to sit in my office for a few minutes to regroup. But it’s a little piece of Brenda and Amber that we really needed, and we still need.”

Williams agrees that her mother was dedicated to her work — and to her co-workers.

“She appreciated the people that she worked with, and she was very protective of them and very aware of not only what people were dealing with and their work environment, but also the personal stuff,” Williams said.

At the same time, her co-workers recognized how dedicated Russ was to her family as well.

Russ raised three children with her husband. But Williams says Russ also treated other “strays” like children. “So she had lots of kids, in that sense,” Williams said. And everyone’s children, in turn, enlarged Russ’ circle of grandchildren.

“Her family was everything to her,” Haviland said.

Family traditions

Russ was determined not to be a distant grandmother, Williams said, even though she lived more than eight hours away from Williams and her family. So after Williams’ daughter was born eight years ago, Russ drove once a month, every month, to spend time with her, and later her siblings, too.

“They did all sorts of fun stuff together — without Mom and rules,” Williams said.

Tradition was also important to Russ, Williams said. So annual milestones included visiting graves on Memorial Day weekend, meeting up at a family reunion powwow to dance in July, and making candy on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

It seems that Russ brought her same strategic thinking to candy-making that she did to health care. This was not a matter of simply whipping up a few dozen treats for herself.

“Six ladies in a kitchen for three days, and Mom was the director of that cruise ship,” Williams said. The candy numbered 6,315 pieces last year, even as Russ had been coping with cancer. Russ, Williams and the other women then shipped the candy to relatives and friends — in 12 different states last year, Williams thinks.

Williams thinks she’ll continue her mom’s tradition, although it’s a daunting task. “We’re going to have to rally because we need candy,” she said.

Inherited traits

Through the projects she undertakes, it’s clear Williams inherited a trait Haviland used to describe Russ: strong-willed.

Russ had been through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. But, Haviland said, “even in her weakest state” at work, she would still use the strength she had to get up to walk around every hour.

Russ said she didn’t need company, but Haviland had to be sure her friend was OK, so she followed her. “She was walking slow, but I had to trail her secretively.”

And if Brenda Russ could see her co-workers wearing the masks her daughter had made to keep them safe, Haviland thinks her first thought would have been this: “’Keep them on, and don’t take them off because guess what: This is the rule.’”

Williams chimed in: “’Not below your nose.’ I can just hear her lecturing proper mask etiquette.”

“And I think that she’d be very honored,” Haviland added. “I think more than honored by us wearing it, she would be honored that Amber has done this for her. And that her daughter is pretty exceptional, and she probably sees a lot of herself in Amber.

“That’s how we see it, too.”

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Posted In Community, Coronavirus, Thief River Falls, Wellness

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