If you were to meet Barbara Thompson, you’d understand why she’s known as the “Zebra Lady.” Not only does she wear zebra print daily, but she also hands out “zebra cards” that explain pulmonary hypertension (PH).

It’s no surprise that during the COVID-19 pandemic, she is sewing zebra-printed masks.

How It started

The Memphis, Tennessee, native was inspired to start making masks after participating in a video chat about a mask shortage with Dr. Patricia George, director, Pulmonary Hypertension Program, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine, National Jewish Hospital.

“I knew I had to make a zebra mask for myself since I already had the zebra print material on hand,” says Barbara. “I had other material on hand, so I wanted to make some to donate to my PH specialist’s office, Dr. Joy Burbeck with Memphis Lung Physicians Foundation.”

It took Barbara three days to finish her first mask, as it been a while since she had last sewed. The last item Barbara sewed before her mask was a pair of zebra pants for the 2018 Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA) International PH Conference and Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Florida.

Once she was finished, Barbara posted a picture of her zebra mask on Facebook. It wasn’t long before her friends and followers started asking her to sell her masks.

Why Zebra Print?

Zebras are commonly associated with PH because it is a rare and not easily diagnosed disease. Physicians often are taught to think of a common diagnosis first, not rare ones, therefore, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”

Barbara was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) in 2002. The diagnosis put an end to her wedding business that she ran with her husband, Chuck, since 1988, but it led Barbara down a new path to raise PH awareness.

In 2003, she started her support group, Mid-South Area PH Support Group in Memphis. Barbara also has two Facebook groups, The Zebra Zone, Raising Awareness of Pulmonary Hypertension and the Mid-South Area Zebra PHolks page.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbara often handed out zebra cards to people who asked her why she was wearing zebra print.

“Yes, people look at me funny, but that just gives me a chance to give them one of the zebra cards I had made that briefly explains PH on one side and the zebra analogy on the other.”

Raising PH Awareness

After getting requests to sell her zebra masks, Barbara put listings on her eBay store, along with other items she makes to help raise PH awareness. Barbara recently switched to selling her items on Etsy and Bonanza.

“Besides the masks, we have bracelets, earrings, necklaces, car decals and bumper stickers,” Barbara says. “We now have a zebra ball cap that I designed and commissioned to be manufactured.”

It’s been difficult for Barbara to keep up with the demand for masks, but her husband of nearly 45 years has been giving a helping hand. Chuck cuts out the fabric and makes the nose wires, and Barbara sews everything together.

From each item she sells, Barbara takes 10% of the purchase price and donates it to PHA for research to help find a cure. She accrues the money until the end of the year for Giving Tuesday, so she can double her donation.

Barbara chose to contribute to PHA because its staff has been a part of her life for many years, and she doesn’t want other families to experience the hardships her family had to go through.

“No family should have to go through what mine did for the almost two years I was bedridden prior to a correct diagnosis,” says Barbara. “They never knew if Mom was going to open her eyes the next morning.”

Barbara is committed to raising PH awareness until a cure is found, and she plans to do so in any way she can.