How Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr. assembled a humanitarian dream team to get 160K masks from China


California neurological spine surgeon Robert S. Bray Jr. MD, established the DISC Foundation for humanitarian projects to benefit special forces veterans, and shifted its focus to procuring personal protective equipment for hospitals at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-March, with many hospitals rapidly burning through their mask supply, Dr. Bray set out to secure as much PPE as possible, from wherever possible.

"Hospitals ran through months of PPE in days," said Dr. Bray, who founded DISC Sports & Spine Center in Newport Beach, Calif., 14 years ago "As it evolved into a pandemic, there was a massive shortage. The supply chains were not built for this."

"There wasn't a stockpile or a reserve of medical supplies — ventilators, protective gowns, gloves — but one of the main shortages was N95 masks."

After consulting his contact book of former patients and colleagues, Dr. Bray embarked on a logistical odyssey — the likes of which supply chain executives across the country were struggling with — to secure masks at a crucial period for front-line healthcare workers. 

When medical suppliers such as Medline and 3M told him he would have to wait six-months to receive masks, he started to look further afield.

Dr. Bray connected with Sheldon Adelson and Rob Goldstein of casino and resort company Las Vegas Sands Corp., who were organizing a trip to China to pick up protective gear.

Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Michael and Iris Smith of U.S. gas company Freeport LNG, donated additional funds. But Dr. Bray still had to source the PPE, which became the biggest challenge.

With U.S. and Chinese relations politically strained from the onset of the pandemic, hospitals could only accept donations that were approved by the FDA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"It turns out that the vast majority of Chinese masks didn't meet these criteria," Dr. Bray said. "Often the information you received from the manufacturer was not actually what the mask was."

Regulations became a nightmare, with many companies sending masks that were expired, not filed, incorrectly worded or falsely claimed to be FDA-approved.

"I ended up with thousands of masks that were useless," Dr. Bray said. "I couldn't donate them because they didn't meet the certifications. Each time we thought we got there, we would run into another roadblock. Meanwhile, hospitals were getting more and more desperate."

When a manufacturing facility with the right specification of masks was located in China, the masks were transported to Macau, where Mr. Adelson donated his plane to pick them up. Their team removed the seats from the plane and flew 160,000 masks back through Anchorage. 

After successfully navigating customs, the masks were flown to Las Vegas and  distributed to hospitals, including Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, National Jewish Health in Denver, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Providence Saint John's Health Center in Los Angeles.

The masks were delivered at a critical time to hospitals free of charge — the donors and DISC Foundation paid for everything.

"Our costs of getting the masks turned out to be less than $3 each, which was incredible because there was so much price-gouging going on," Dr. Bray said.  

"We had some supply chain experts who did this for years and simply couldn't get it done — there were too many hurdles. I think we need to learn from that in the future, so we have prepared lines. But I'm happy we were able to help a lot of front-line workers when they desperately needed it."

For surgeons starting out in the field, Dr. Bray has three words of advice: "Just give back."

"We have a lot of power between the people we know and they're very grateful for the care we've provided," he said. "Don't use that power for yourself; use it for good if you get the chance."

"If more people in practices did that and pooled those donor pools and resources, then there's a whole lot more we can accomplish."

Other key donors included Todd Chaffee of investment company IVP and Mel Geliebter of The Geliebter Foundation.

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