Unable to work with patients, med students help frontline workers by answering phones, distributing PPE, even babysitting.
Lindsey Kahan MD’21 was finishing her third year at The Warren Alpert Medical School, preparing to apply to orthopedic surgery residency programs, when the School made the decision to pull its students out of their clinical rotations on March 17. Kahan and her colleagues have been completing their academic year, mostly online. But they wanted to do more. They wanted to contribute to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
And they have.
“We followed the lead of other medical students at schools like the University of Minnesota and Washington University in St. Louis, developing a task force to help medical providers with childcare, pet care, and other day-to-day tasks,” says Kahan, one of the two co-coordinators for the student-formed Alpert Med Resource Aid. “Kristy Blackwood [MD’22] and I connected on Twitter through #Medtwitter and #Medstudenttwitter, and then we were connected by providers in Rhode Island, like Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Katherine Sharkey.”
“We want to contribute to the efforts of the medical community,” says Blackwood, Kahan’s co-coordinator. “We want to do everything we can to support the providers who are fighting COVID-19 every day.”
The student-run Alpert Med Resource Aid Board is made up of rising third- and fourth-year medical students, including Morgan Askew MD’22, Kelsey Brown ’18 MD’22, Rachel Montoya ’16 MD’22, Benjamin Pallant MD’22, Carol Shi ’18 MD’22, and Amelia Warshaw MD’21, who now are coordinating dozens of volunteers working with providers at over half a dozen locations across Rhode Island.
“There’s a huge desire on the part of med students to contribute any way they can,” Blackwood says. And the medical community has quickly made use of their services. “Within one week of sending out our solicitation forms, we were providing childcare and other services to over 20 health care providers. And we’re still growing.”
Notably, a significant portion of the applications for childcare came from a group of providers at Brown called “MomDocFamily.”
“During crises, we must also recognize the role that women-identifying people play in community engagement and social support,” says Askew, who was studying for her medical licensing exam when testing centers abruptly shut down. “The people perhaps most at risk during this pandemic are those that medicine fails even in the best of times: Women, black and brown people, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, people experiencing poverty, people struggling with addiction, and people experiencing housing insecurity.”
The Medical School’s mission statement emphasizes “improving the health and wellness of all,” and last year the School created a Service Learning Curriculum focused on their students’ contributions to communities throughout Rhode Island. For many students, stepping up to lend a hand didn’t require much prompting; indeed, using their medical training to serve the public is one of the key reasons they chose to go to medical school at Brown.
“I am so proud of the Alpert medical students who are volunteering throughout our community in the face of this crisis, but I am not surprised,” says Katherine Sharkey, MD, PhD, assistant dean for women in medicine and science and an associate professor of medicine and of psychiatry and human behavior.
“Our students are a remarkable group of women and men who consistently make important contributions to Rhode Island, in and out of our health care settings,” Sharkey adds. “To see that they have rolled up their sleeves and organized around helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic efforts is in keeping within the ethos of these students, year round.”
Based on guidance from national medical education organizations, Brown has limited the students’ direct interactions with COVID-19 patients. But they have found so many other ways to help. The Medical Student Senate president, Eloho Akpovi MD’21, along with Kira Bromwich ’15 MD’21, Lindsay Dreizler MD’21, Hannah Kerman ’15 MD’21, Vivian Chan Li MD’21, and Harry VanDusen MD’21, quickly put together a COVID-19 website to centralize student volunteer efforts.
The site directs their peers to initiatives and volunteer opportunities, from helping to triage clinical phone calls at the Rhode Island Department of Health and Rhode Island Hospital and relaying guidance to doctors and other health workers, to distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospital staff.
“I’m proud to be part of a community, both at the medical school and the greater Rhode Island state, that steps up to help their neighbors when there is a need,” says Li, who is leading the student group working with the national GetUsPPE.org initiative. The nearly 150 volunteers made over 1,000 calls in one day, and they’re continuing to reach out to hundreds of organizations to find masks from local labs, museums, and dentists. They’re also working with Rhode Island Hospital’s 3-D printing lab to design new N-95 masks.
“We want a say in what happens to our medical and patient community,” Akpovi says. “I chose to volunteer my time because it is natural for me to want to contribute wherever I can, and it makes sense for me to do so as the student body leader. Being involved means I’m showing the world that medical students aren’t going to just let COVID-19 happen to us.”
James Scharfen ’16 MD’20, Amelia Gurley MD’21, Christopher Demas MD’21, Tammy Yu ’16 MD’20, and Michael Zaskey ’17 MD’21 are working with the Department of Health, where more than 50 medical students have been integrated into task forces assisting the state’s epidemiologists and triage specialists, while others are working with the National Guard’s statewide efforts.
“Medical students are uniquely positioned at this time since we are aware of the inner workings of the medical system, have basic clinical skills, and a robust problem-solving skill set,” Demas says. “We’re serving those in our community in the special ways medicine offers—providing our knowledge, skills, emotional support, and advocacy to those that need it most.”
“I had forgotten how fulfilling it is to be a team member assisting with tangible goals,” says Lauren Ready MD’21, who helps triage calls at the Department of Health and track clusters of cases. “I feel that we, as medical students, have a niche. Being able to address questions from community members and calm fears has been a truly meaningful experience.”
To support and encourage the student volunteers, the Medical School is awarding them clinical credit toward their studies. “Members of our school’s administration have been tireless in their efforts to support and advocate for students during this time,” Bromwich says. “I think like many students who go into medicine, I place enormous value on public service. The typical duties required of students may have changed, given these unprecedented circumstances, but our values haven’t.”
She adds, “It’s also about gratitude—the gratitude I feel toward our health care workers for the work they do every single day. I think we should contribute anything we can to help them keep doing their jobs.”
“I see our medical students as junior colleagues,” Sharkey says. ”Yes, they are still in training, but they are smart, compassionate adults who give their best every day. They can see all of the extra work that needs to be done, and so they are going to pick up the slack and do it. They have stepped up because they truly feel that they are part of the health care team, and they see the contributions they are making now as the best way to help out during these unprecedented times.”