Newswise — From dog walking and grocery runs to coordinating PPE donations and assisting with new telehealth initiatives, medical students at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, are volunteering their assistance to support the healthcare workforce, patients and communities in New Jersey during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students at both medical schools have created task forces to help coordinate their volunteer efforts—the COVID-19 Medical Student Task Force at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the NJMS Student Covid Team at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Their goal is to identify needs within the health care system and community and mobilize teams of student volunteers to help address them.
“New Jersey has been ranked second in the U.S. in the number of COVID-19 cases, after New York. It has impacted our healthcare system in unimaginable ways, and as medical students, we feel that calling to help,” said Sally Tarabey, a third-year medical student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who is involved in its task force.
Collaborating with student leaders, RWJMS launched its COVID-19 Medical Student Task Force, with more than 40 third- and fourth-year medical students who were ready to organize a community-wide PPE donation drive, provide patient outreach and develop fundraising campaigns, noted Kaavya Mahajan, a third-year student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who said she and her fellow classmates sought to be “agents of change” to better support the healthcare system in fighting this pandemic.
“Everyone is in an unprecedented situation and there are no official roles that we, as medical students, can fill. In such a time, it becomes most important to recognize areas of need in our healthcare system and pioneer our own roles. As it turns out, we are uniquely suited for this task,” added Sneha Swaminathan, a president of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Student Government Association who saw the opportunity as an SGA leader to not only assist in the volunteer efforts, but also help organize them into more cohesive and effective measures.
Assisting with Daily Activities and Support
With the support of the medical schools and affiliate hospitals, students have brainstormed and implemented numerous ways to tackle the various issues healthcare communities are facing.
David Elson, one of eight students who helped start the NJMS Student Covid Team on March 19, developed a website linked to Google Docs, to create ways to make themselves useful to the medical community.
The 40-70 NJMS students who have volunteered so far want to help those on the frontlines at University Hospital, Newark, who are battling the pandemic. Their goal: to help offset the impact of this unprecedented pandemic for those saving lives and keeping hospitals running.
“We were inspired by our sister medical schools throughout the country that were doing this and we knew we could help here,” said Elson. “This is pure volunteerism and we are happy to provide any assistance we can to those on the frontlines.”
Services include everything from childcare and dog walking to helping to collect PPE and 3D printed masks being created for doctors and nurses. A similar database was developed at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to assist with these types of support services, including grocery shopping and online K-12 tutoring and homework help for children of healthcare professionals at the medical school and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick.
NJMS student Reshma Parikh, who had spent 40-60 hours each week in clinical rotations before COVID-19, cared for the two young daughters of University Hospital infectious disease doctor Michelle DallaPiazza four hours a day for a week before DallaPiazza and her husband, a photojournalist, decided to send their children to their grandparents’ home in Houston, Texas.
“After the week had ended, I realized how great of a break from reality it was to work with children for a few hours every day,” Parikh said.
DallaPiazza said she and her husband decided to send their daughters to Texas because their fulltime babysitter is over 70. She wanted to make sure her neighbor, their daughters and Parikh stayed safe and healthy.
“I am so grateful to the students who have volunteered their time to help out in any way possible during this stressful time. The sense of relief we felt knowing that the children would be able to get through their learning tasks while at home helped us manage the rest of our chaotic work and family lives,” DallaPiazza said.
Addressing the PPE Shortage
For third-year RWJMS student Erin Kern, knowing that her friends and mentors continued to work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in the hospital every day drove her desire to help. She was interested specifically in assisting with PPE (personal protective equipment) collection because of the global PPE shortage and the impact it could have on hospital supplies locally.
“Healthcare providers are calling out for assistance, and I feel that I owe it to them to do whatever I can to help. They deserve our help,” Kern said.
As part of the RWJMS PPE drive, students have been cold-calling various businesses in the state—including salons, tattoo parlors, carpenters, contractors, landscapers, and so on—who may use PPE such as gloves, face shields and masks in their line of work and have extra to donate. They have collaborated with other medical students statewide to circulate fliers via social media, as well as to any community members who reach out, requesting supplies as well. In conjunction with their efforts, the RWJMS Office of Education donated three boxes of N95 masks, two boxes of regular face masks and 10 cases of gloves to Emergency Medicine.
Another group of RWJMS students raised funds to purchase PPE directly from suppliers. The drive exceeded its goal, raising more than $12,500 in three days.
In addition, in a little more than two weeks, NJMS students have delivered more than 400 3D-printed face shields to University Hospital.
“It’s surreal thinking about how this all started: I emailed a stranger, Kate Leahy—who would eventually become the one to teach me the ins-and-outs of 3D-printing—and within 24 hours, found myself standing on her driveway, six feet apart from her and her 15-year old son, Nick Callan, playing around with latex, plastic, and 3D-printed parts until we decided on the perfect prototype,” said NJMS student Archana Babu.
Since that time, what started as a modest effort has grown into a diverse community of more than 50 volunteers, including teachers, engineers, students and a Boy Scout, who have worked tirelessly for 18 days straight to help create face shields, Babu said. “The dedication of our volunteers has been a humbling sight; we have engineers pioneering new solutions, laser cutters shaping our sheets, 3D-printers producing parts, and volunteers assembling shields straight off the press. It started with one email and led to magic. They give me hope that we will make it through this."
Reaching out to the Community
NJMS students also are expanding community outreach efforts through the student-driven Fresh Produce Distribution Task Face, led by third-year student Claudia Flores and second-year students Catherine Ye and Jason Oettinger. On April 2, they provided fresh produce to 1,100 seniors and 100 families and look forward to continuing to do so for the next two months. The effort includes volunteers from NJMS, Rutgers School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers School of Health Professions physician assistant students and undergraduate colleges, as well as neighborhood participants, with produce donated by food rescue organization Table to Table in support of the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District and CareSparc Consulting’s Emergency Response Collaborative Effort, in conjunction with the N.J. Department of Health and Community Wellness and Newark City Hall.
“It is an incredible privilege to be able to give back to the community that we learn and live in through this project. We have been humbled by the overwhelming amount of support from students from all over Newark, whether medical, graduate, PA or undergraduate,” said Ye. “In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, our mission is to be the village that raises up our city during these difficult times.”
Finding a Way to Help Patients
Although clinical rotations were suspended in March, students are doing their part to assist with patient care as well, whether it’s spreading the word about how to donate blood to help restore depleted blood banks or taking non-clinical roles in patient care.
At Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, which has increasingly begun turning to telehealth initiatives during this crisis, third- and fourth-year medical students will have the opportunity to volunteer in several capacities: onboarding of clinic visits (15 minutes before the physician visit, inviting the patient, doing medication reconciliation, pertinent history, etc.); training and support of physicians; and call-backs of recently discharged patients. All opportunities can be done remotely, and plans are being finalized to put this program into action, according to Carol A. Terregino, senior associate dean for education and academic affairs. The services are being coordinated with Frank Sonnenberg, chief medical informatics officer with the Rutgers Health/RWJBarnabas Health combined medical group, by student leaders and fourth-year students Kitae Chang, Anoushka Dua and Daniel Kevin under the guidance of faculty advisor Catherine Chen, assistant professor of medicine at RWJMS.
At New Jersey Medical School, the Class of 2020 will graduate early and be eligible to begin their residencies and provide critical health care. The students normally would have graduated in May; instead, all 192 students will graduate on April 13.
They also have already been volunteering day and night to provide relief workers for the University Hospital labor pool, said Scott Fabricant, a third-year NJMS student. “Right now, we are performing entrance screenings for possibly sick staff and visitors,” he explained. “It’s not glamorous work, but it is vital for keeping our healthcare workers and patients safe. Everyone has been so grateful for our participation, from the highest levels of administration down to the frontline clinicians and staff.”
“Everyone has a role to play in fighting this pandemic, from staying home to limit the spread of the virus to helping those caring for people affected in our communities,” said Danika Baskar, third-year RWJMS student. “It is consideration for those at the front lines that really goes a long way, and we are trying our best to support them in any way we can.”
Looking back at the past few weeks, Elson said he is inspired by what the team has been able to accomplish. “Here are a group of students whose clinical experiences were interrupted, and they immediately ask themselves, ‘How can we help?’ The famous quote from Mr. Rogers comes to mind: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Thus, while this is an incredibly difficult period, by being there for each other, we will get through this together.”
- RWJMS Students for COVID-19 Response – database for students interested in supporting healthcare staff with tasks such as pet care, grocery shopping, and virtual homework help.
- RWJMS Students Skills Database – database for students with skills/certifications such as EMTs, certified phlebotomists, etc., in the event that additional help is being recruited.