Med students redeploy used smartphones to help nursing home residents combat isolation.
In March, as medical students across the country mobilized to offer their time and expertise to fight COVID-19, Benjamin Gallo Marin MD’23 got a call from two fellow Princeton alumni. They were organizing an all-volunteer, nationwide project called Connect for COVID-19, and they wanted Gallo to lead their efforts in Rhode Island and New England.
Their goal—to gather donated smart devices and distribute them to COVID-19 patients isolated in hospitals—was identical to that of another effort already underway in Rhode Island, COVID Connectors. Gallo reached out to one of that group’s cofounders, Rory Merritt ’09 MD’13 F’19, an assistant professor of emergency medicine.
“I wanted to see, how can we help this existing project?” Gallo recalls. He says Merritt told him they had already reached their goal for the state’s hospitals, but there were other patients whom Connect for COVID-19 could help.
“So we’ve been focusing our efforts on assisted living facilities and nursing homes,” Gallo says.
Long-term care facilities have restricted visitors since the beginning of the pandemic, isolating residents from their families and loved ones. Gallo says it’s been gratifying to hear how helping people stay connected is improving their lives.
“They’ve shared images of residents using the devices,” he says of the facilities that have received their devices. “The other day someone sent a picture of this lady playing Candy Crush. We never imagined that to be the intent of it, but it’s a form of escape, so go for it.”
So far, the group has gathered more than 400 smartphones, tablets, and laptops, some of them used machines donated by the public, others purchased with $10,000 in cash gifts. For help setting the devices so they’re easy to connect to WiFi, Merritt referred Gallo to Ian Lester, a technology services manager at the University of Rhode Island who had helped COVID Connectors with their devices.
“He’s been partnering with us ever since,” Gallo says. “It was nice because here in Rhode Island there was already an existing infrastructure that we could expand on.”
Gallo recruited fellow Princeton alum Patrick Wasserman MD’22 and 10 other Alpert medical student volunteers for Connect for COVID-19. They’re now expanding their reach to hospices, and have been talking to YMCAs and community health centers to find out how to help their clients. As a nationwide nonprofit organization (it received 510(c)3 status in May), chapters are able to help each other: Gallo says his group recently sent several devices to New Jersey hospitals.
When Gallo isn’t donating his time to Connect for COVID-19, the Nicaragua native volunteers his language skills to translate health information into Spanish for local patients, as well as journal articles with new research on coronavirus and its management that he sends to physicians back home, where “there is no government guidance,” he says. (In April, he coauthored a letter in The Lancet that called out the Nicaraguan government for actively discouraging social distancing.)
He’s also helping physicians in Brown’s Division of Global Emergency Medicine, where he’s a research intern, to create COVID-19 educational modules for health care providers in Spanish-speaking countries.
“It’s nice to have a local impact [in Rhode Island], but also lend a hand to the people of Latin America,” Gallo says. “It’s been a very active few months, but it’s the least we can do.”