By weekday, Aaron Robertson is a third-year medical student at the University of Washington who lives in the Central District. By weekend, he is a rabid skier with an impressive racing pedigree, having competed for Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy — alma mater of Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin — and Middlebury College.
Like nearly every skier on the planet, Robertson saw his season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic even as snow continued to fall in the high country. Locally, most Washington resorts closed the weekend of March 15. By the end of the month, following Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, all of the snow-covered public land in the state — national parks, national forests and state land — was closed until further notice.
With ski season over prematurely and UW having canceled clinical rotations for the time being, Robertson has a lot of time on his hands. On March 31, he was browsing social media when he saw that fellow Middlebury alumnus Jon Schaefer, now owner/manager of Massachusetts ski resort Berkshire East, was collecting ski goggles on behalf of New York City doctors in desperate need of emergency eyewear — one component of the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) facing frontline health care workers during the pandemic.
The initiative, called Goggles for Docs, is one of the countless grassroots efforts that have sprung up in the wake of crisis. And it was one for which Robertson was uniquely suited to contribute.
“I’ve collected a lot of goggles over my life,” he said. After rummaging around in his gear bin, he found seven pairs he could lose.
The next day, Robertson contacted Goggles for Docs — which in just four days had evolved from a single appeal from a New York doctor to a northeastern ski resort into a nationwide collection effort — and was immediately drafted to serve as a local drop-off host and, eventually, the volunteer regional coordinator for the Seattle area.
The concept is simple: Hospitals in short supply of medical-grade protective eyewear who would consider using ski goggles as an imperfect substitute in a time of crisis request a certain number of pairs from Goggles for Docs, which maintains a regularly updated spreadsheet. Donors are urged to mail their gently used goggles directly to the hospital — both to speed up delivery and save on costs. If they are unable to do so, donors can drop them off to coordinators like Robertson who pay the shipping out of pocket. This week alone, Robertson bundled up 45 pairs and shipped them to two New York City hospitals: Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
With the pandemic’s curve possibly having crested in Washington, no local hospitals are requesting the goggles, but as of April 7, the project has requests open for 2,167 pairs of goggles across 16 states.
As a doctor in training, Robertson is the first to admit that ski goggles are imperfect PPE — the foam liner needs to be sanitized between patients and doesn’t dry quickly — but that the current situation calls for such improvised measures.
“It’s battlefield medicine — you do whatever you can with the supplies that you have,” he said. “If you don’t have the proper PPE, I’d say goggles are better than nothing.”
For Goggles for Docs to adjust to scale, however, it will need contributions larger than just individual skiers who have an old pair with scratched lenses. As of press time, well-known eyewear brands like Anon, Marker, Fox Racing, Rossignol, Spy, Giro and more have donated a collective 15,732 pairs.
Giro’s donation of 3,200 goggles caught the eye of Seattle skier Logan Piepmeier, who donated his own pair to the cause. “I’ll need a new set of goggles next season and I would definitely look at them first since they have donated.”
Local ski resorts and shops are starting to join the effort as well. Sturtevant’s Bellevue and Tacoma locations have set up drop boxes and donated from their own stock. Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend also donated 10 pairs of new goggles. Robertson said he has reached out to Summit at Snoqualmie and Crystal Mountain Resort to inquire if they could donate any pairs left in their lost and found. (Neither resort responded to a query by press time.)
Lisa Simpson, who set up a drop-off box at her Redmond home, is the first-aid director for the Snoqualmie Pass Volunteer Ski Patrol. “Being in that role, it has been incredibly hard to sit at home reading about and hearing from fellow health care workers struggling to have the protections they need to fight this pandemic,” she said.
Simpson learned about Goggles for Docs from the National Ski Patrol and realized there was a way to combine her volunteerism ethos with her snow sports background during this crisis. “What a great and simple way for people in this area, which has a high population of folks who love the outdoors, to help.”
She has made some of the calls to equipment manufacturers and gear shops on behalf of Goggles for Docs, which has taken her outside of her comfort zone, just like on the slopes. “I have never been comfortable with cold-calling companies, so I really had to take a breath and go for it, similar to when I am approaching steep terrain that I haven’t skied before,” she said.