Supporting the front line: As medical students, we’re adapting our skills for unprecedented times

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Three healthcare workers collect donated breakfast and coffee for the staff in the Emergency Department at UPMC Presbyterian. Donation money was collected from the community and used to buy food from Friendship Perk & Brew. (Photo from Feeding the Frontline Pittsburgh)

Three healthcare workers collect donated breakfast and coffee for the staff in the Emergency Department at UPMC Presbyterian. Donation money was collected from the community and used to buy food from Friendship Perk & Brew. (Photo from Feeding the Frontline Pittsburgh)

As medical students, we at times feel that given the hierarchical structure of medicine we have little to no ability to create real change. Not quite enough authority, limited experience and no coveted degree. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot of things, including social structures. And we’ve found ourselves compelled to serve as volunteers to support our healthcare workers on the front lines. While they are risking their lives every day, we are working to support their families and collaborate with our Pittsburgh communities to find unique solutions to very real problems. From child care to food and medication delivery and plans in the works to do contact tracing with the county health department, we are putting our skills and connections to work during these unprecedented times.

There are five of us, fourth-year medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. While we all have our unique academic interests and career aspirations, we all share a passion for community health, social justice and commitment to health care access. Before the true brunt of the coronavirus came to the United States, we were closely following reports from physicians in other countries. Warning signs were coming from Italy and China and now the health care system in our country must meet the demands of sick patients.

Our group came together in mid-March. A few days later, Pitt’s School of Medicine decided to pull out all students from their clinical rotations across the UPMC health system. Within hours of coming together as student leaders, we assembled a volunteer cohort of 150 Pitt medical students who were interested in helping out. We later expanded our volunteer cohort to other Pitt health professions students and local medical students at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. At first, we envisioned ourselves mainly volunteering in clinical settings, doing tasks like patient intake and changing over exam rooms. But in the last few weeks, we have taken on as many volunteer opportunities as we could handle. 

The biggest need we have identified thus far has been child care for healthcare workers as they are continuing to work after unexpected and extensive school and day care closings. Some families need emergency on-call child care if they are called in to work an extra shift or one of their patients has a medical emergency. Other parents are now doing telemedicine from home and need someone to watch their kids while they work. Others need full-time child care so they can work their normal hours. We’ve helped 30 families so far with at least some of their needs. Positive feedback and all, we are still unable to meet the child care needs of the healthcare community here in Pittsburgh.   

Besides child care services, we have been working on other initiatives to bring needed resources to community members. A contact at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy pointed out that current guidelines distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and resources provided by the mainstream media are less accessible to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Thus, we began creating educational materials at a fourth to fifth-grade reading level with illustrations in collaboration with students at New York University and a graphic designer. Our goal is to clarify vague medical terms like “shortness of breath” to make information clearer so that people with special needs know when to seek medical attention.

We are also organizing efforts to deliver critical medications to patients of the Birmingham Free Clinic, a clinic on the South Side that serves a large underinsured population in Pittsburgh. Between a third to a half of Birmingham’s patients have one or more chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma or a combination of the three. For many patients, Birmingham is the only place they can obtain life saving medications like insulin or inhalers. Our delivery efforts have allowed these patients to continue receiving these medicines during the pandemic to reduce the risk of them having to present to an emergency room, or worse. 

We have also begun helping with food deliveries from local restaurants to churches and aid organizations. When we received an urgent request for drivers, so many students jumped at the opportunity to help that the restaurant is hoping to make this a recurring voluntary effort. We are also collaborating to run deliveries with Feeding the Frontline Pittsburgh, an organization started by Soukaina Eljamri, Maddie Taylor and Claire Taylor, where monetary donations from the community are used to purchase food from local restaurants and are then donated to local frontline healthcare workers. In light of a national shortage of personal protective equipment [PPE], we are joining physicians with local experts in 3D printing to create prototypes for equipment to reduce transmission of disease. We are continuing to work closely with administrators and physicians at the medical school, UPMC, Allegheny County Health Department and Allegheny County Medical Society to identify their needs and opportunities for medical students to help in clinical settings. Medical students will soon be working with the county to track COVID-19 cases and conduct contact tracing to identify people exposed to the virus. 

Ultimately, we are still in the early days of the pandemic, and it’s hard to say how we will come out at the other end of it. Many of the issues we’re tackling with our initiatives limited PPE and lack of access to affordable childcare, medications, and food highlight the larger issues at play that are adding onto the burden of the health implications of the COVID-19 crisis itself. Once the dust settles, we will be able to look back at this historic stretch of time, and it will be important for us, especially as future physicians, to critically analyze what brought us to this situation to begin with, what we could have done better at a policy level to reduce social and economic effects of this pandemic, and what changes in policy and hospital infrastructure need to be made to prepare us for the next time. 

Amid the tragedy and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hopeful. Our ability to come together as medical students, locally and nationally, to organize and be creative to find solutions to big problems, shows that we are ready to be the future health care leaders, regardless of what the future may hold. 

This essay was co-authored by Tejasvi Gowda (@tweetasvi), Carly O’Connor-Terry (@carcarmarie), Sarah Minney (@minneymed), Jane Kwon, and Ben Zuchelkowski (@zuchelkowski_b). All five are medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. If you are interested in supporting their efforts, donations can be made to Feeding the Frontline Pittsburgh or by emailing Tejasvi at tejasvigowda3@gmail.com.

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