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As the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S., Minfen Ding knew what to expect.

Since January, the oncology nurse at Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland had been in communication with friends and colleagues on the front lines of the pandemic response in her native China. Health care workers in the country, she learned, were contracting the virus at alarming rates, because they lacked proper personal protection equipment (PPE).

“I saw what happened in the early stages of Wuhan, so I was scared for myself and my coworkers,” said Ding, 53. 

Foreseeing that hospitals in the U.S. were underprepared to deal with outbreaks of their own, she decided to take action. In early March — just as the virus was spreading in the Bay Area — she tapped into her network of contacts in the Chinese community, locally and abroad, and organized a donation drive. 

Soon enough, contributions began flooding in. 

Friends in China and the Bay Area mailed in packages of medical masks. Her former church in Berkeley organized a fundraiser for supplies. The Cal Parents program at the University of California Berkeley donated 480 protective suits, while Chinese residents in Albany contributed 200 face shields with plans to send even more. Even Ding’s children have gotten involved — her daughter raised more than $3,000 to purchase an additional 6,000 masks from China, and her son collected 10,000 shoe covers for the hospital.

“I’m so grateful,” said Ding. “They’re a loving community.”

While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area has inched above 6,000, Ding has collected more than 16,000 medical and N95 masks in less than a month. She estimates that 95 percent of the medical supplies have been shipped from China, which has proved a logistical headache as Ding and her donors try to navigate China’s foreign customs restrictions. 

Ding remains undeterred. To streamline the shipping process, she turned to her friend, Lily Ding (no relation), a board member at the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation. 

Before the pandemic, the foundation had never participated in an emergency response before, but its members felt they had to make an exception for Ding’s cause. “To go through customs is nerve-wracking, because the rules are always changing,” explained Lily. “We’re glad that we can help in some small ways.” Leveraging their contacts in China, the foundation’s members have eased the transport of supplies to the Bay Area.

Through it all, Minfeng Ding defers the credit to her donors.

“My friends spent a lot of their own money. The [local] Chinese community raised the money to buy the PPE and ship it over to our hospital,” said Ding. “They’re the heroes. I’m only the facilitator.”

While Ding may downplay her role, the staff at the medical center are far more effusive in their praise.

“We’re so grateful for Minfen’s efforts to secure much-needed surgical masks for her colleagues,” said Denise Navellier, the hospital’s chief nursing executive. “We’re humbled by the community’s outpouring of support during this challenging time.”

Hero or not, Ding plans to keep working with the Bay Area and Chinese communities to bring in more resources for her hospital. She knows that stopping the coronavirus will be a grueling challenge, but it’s one she believes the region can overcome.

“Stay at home, shelter in place, do your part,” she said. “If we fight together, we’ll definitely win the battle.”

To see a full list of needed supplies and to make a donation, visit Sutter Health’s website, or call (844) 987-6099.