Mask Hero: Evelyn Figueroa, MD

Mask Hero: Evelyn Figueroa, MD

Figueroa Wu Family Foundation 

The day Illinois’ stay-at-home order was announced, Evelyn Figueroa, MD, a family physician and professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), made a beeline to the craft store. “I ran to Joann [Fabrics], and I basically bought any fabric I thought would be good,” she says.

She knew hospitals were experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment, so she put a call out to friends and family and on social media for help making masks for healthcare workers. With the assistance of Ally Young, a fourth-year medical student at UIC, the Cloth Mask Project was born.

Evelyn Figueroa quote Figueroa’s focus shifted when she saw, firsthand, the need at area homeless shelters. “They’re invisible in this,” says Figueroa, a member of the Chicago Homelessness and Health Response Group for Equity (CHHRGE). At Pacific Garden Mission, where she served as Covid-19 medical director, 45% of the population tested positive for the virus in the early days of the pandemic. In addition, her team of volunteers coordinated the distribution of nearly 9,000 masks to West Side homeless shelters. 

The mask project is just one initiative to help people who are struggling. Figueroa co-founded the anti-poverty nonprofit Figueroa Wu Family Foundation with her husband, Alex Wu, MD, who is also a family physician. The organization has operated the Pilsen Food Pantry since 2018, which provides healthy food for up to 1,100 families a month. 

Figueroa says she has seen spikes in donations and volunteers as people see the inequities around Chicago and across the country laid bare. Her hope, she says, is that those passions last. “I want people to remember this fire that they have right now,” she says. “I want them to stay connected to that.”

Originally published in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 print issue. Photo by Jim Vondruska