Front-Line Stories

Medical School Students Mobilize to Help Healthcare Heroes on the Front Lines of COVID-19

Medical School Students Mobilize to Help Healthcare Heroes on the Front Lines of COVID-19

For fourth-year medical student Sara Stewart, COVID-19 has been a scary wakeup call — and a push to jump into action to help the doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers behind the layers of protective equipment who form the backbone of the coronavirus fight.

In March, the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine responded immediately to move medical sciences courses online and suspend teaching in clinical environments to protect medical students’ safety. COVID-19 was beginning to spread across the globe.

At the time, Stewart was rounding at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, NY. While making plans to travel back to her family’s home in Barrington, IL, she also was diagnosed with COVID-19, thankfully, she says, “a mild case.”

“New York was a hotbed and suddenly everybody was really, really sick,” said Stewart. “I felt so helpless knowing that people I knew were some of the healthcare workers who were putting themselves at risk to go in and care for patients in this huge crisis.”

Quarantined, Stewart rallied a group of her classmates from throughout the U.S. to launch the AUC COVID Volunteers.

“As medical students, we felt we had a lot to offer because we have so much compassion for the medical teams and the knowledge of what it really looks and feels like to be battling COVID-19. We felt called to help. We are healers who cannot be out there, so we are trying to help in any way we can. But in this endeavor, we are compassionate humans first.”

From delivering meals and coordinating personal protective equipment (PPE) donations, to organizing blood drives and volunteering to serve on hotlines for emotional support telehealth initiatives, the team has formed dedicated task forces to mobilize their peers from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Within days of launching, Stewart and her classmates, Vinh Dong, a fourth year med student from Warner Robins, GA; Elizabeth Imperial, a third year student from Oxnard, CA; and Ashley Gorman, a third year student from Panama City, FL, mobilized almost 200 med students into action. Their goal: to identify needs within the healthcare system and get what they need directly into their hands across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They are also working to mobilize teams of student volunteers to help grow their efforts.

The AUC COVID Volunteer squad has hit the ground running. In less than two weeks, they’ve orchestrated meal deliveries at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital in Los Angeles, with more meal deliveries in the works at Suntree Internal Medicine in Melbourne, FL; Flushing and Jamaica hospitals in Queens, NY; Jefferson Northeast in Philadelphia, PA; Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Northridge, CA; and TGH Urgent Care powered by Fast Track in South Tampa, FL.

A blood drive is scheduled for May 4, 2020 at the YMCA in Porter Ranch, CA. PPE donations include bleach, disinfectants and cloth masks, and med students have signed up for training to volunteer with Crisis Text Line, a mental health support organization and New York Cares for New York residents.

For Imperial, who worked as a scribe at Cedars-Sinai before attending medical school and was rounding at Nassau until March, marshalling their efforts is a way to support the medical teams she worked with at the New York hospital. It has also opened her eyes to a whole new aspect of what it means to be a doctor.

“At first I felt a sense of helplessness and emotionally overwhelmed,” said Imperial. “But it is also so good to personally know the people who are out there helping and know that I can do something to support them. I now see that advocacy is an important role, advocacy for the patients, the nurses, the doctors, and the whole hospital team. It is remarkable how we can help support the caretakers and, in that way, we are helping the elderly and the sick who are suffering so much in this pandemic.”

Gorman, who was a paramedic for 11 years before med school, also experienced a sense of helplessness during this pandemic.

“It’s been really hard to see the people I was on the frontlines with as a paramedic, from the sidelines now,” Gorman said. “Healthcare providers are like family to me and this is like seeing my family fight a battle alone.”

She’s been burning up the Internet searching for and signing on PPE donors by reaching out to communities across Florida and providing them with simple ways they can make a huge impact on the lives of healthcare providers and those who are most vulnerable.

“I’m even more passionate about medicine now than I ever thought I could be,” said Gorman. “These are just some small things we can do.”

Dong says the volunteer task force is helping him find a silver lining in COVID-19, and bringing him closer together with his fellow med students.

“It’s frustrating as a medical student to not be able to go out and help people at the hospital,” he said. “AUC COVID Volunteers was developed in response to this. I can feel that even though it is just the beginning, there is a lot of momentum and passion. Times of distress bring us all together.”

“We will be here as long as we are needed,” says Stewart. “Hopefully someday COVID-19 will just be a memory.”

Learn more ways to help your local community here.