These NYC Medical Students Are Mobilizing To Help Fight Coronavirus
Hundreds enrolled at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine are finding creative ways to support city hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19.
By Margaret Chou and Kelby Clark
Benjamin Liu remembers the moment he felt the mood at Mount Sinai’s Manhattan hospital shift. It was about one week before his clinical rotations were cancelled.
“When our first coronavirus patient was moved to our floor, there was still very little media coverage of the outbreak, but I could already feel the anxiety in the air at the hospital,” explains Liu, a third-year student at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. “Being in New York City, we knew we were going to be a hotspot, but we didn’t know to what extent.”
New York has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as hospitalizations begin to flatten. According to the city’s health department, more than 24,576 people have died from the virus. New York City hospitals also face a continued shortage of protective gear and other supplies. With the strain on the health care system at an unprecedented high, Liu and more than 250 of his classmates at Icahn School of Medicine have joined the fight against coronavirus as part of a student-run workforce designed to lessen the burdens on medical facilities throughout the city.
Volunteers have become a vital source of support for a city that’s taken significant measures to staff hospitals swamped with patients, including allowing medical students in their fourth and final year of schooling to graduate early, as well as requesting 1,450 military medical personnel from the Pentagon to be dispatched to its hospitals.
Created and led by the school’s student council leadership, the taskforce is organized into seven core groups that support the needs of the eight hospitals in the Mount Sinai Health System. Certain tasks correspond to certain groups. For example, the telehealth services group supports all the hospitals’ digital communication efforts. The other subgroups are dedicated to either hospital administration, medical labs, and in-hospital pharmacies, or address broader concerns like access to personal protective equipment (PPE), operations management, and morale boosting.
Several volunteers have also been dispatched to Queens to assist medical workers with similar tasks at Elmhurst Hospital Center, one of the hardest hit public hospitals in New York City.
Joining Forces To Fight The Virus.
Tasks are submitted by hospital staff via Formstack, an online form builder, which ensures none of the tasks involve direct contact with COVID-19 patients, possible or confirmed.
Liu says he’s blown away by the incredible response from his fellow students. “Everyone’s stepped up,” he says.
As of Friday, May 1, the group has logged more than 18,600 cumulative volunteer hours.
“Everyone is so eager to do this work,” explains Harinee Maiyuran, a fourth-year medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine and telehealth services leader for the workforce. “We all want to help, that’s why we entered this profession.”
Maiyuran’s days, like Liu’s, would typically be spent at the hospital doing clinical rotations, assisting physicians with patient care and certain procedures, as part of their final years of education. But, since the outbreak, medical schools nationwide have cancelled or paused clinical rotations for student nurses and medical students — Mount Sinai paused all student clinical rotations on March 15.
Christopher Park, a third-year medical student at the school, says there was a major shift in mindset that had to happen — and fast.
“I went from waking up at 5 a.m. to observe surgery to not having anything to do,” explains Chris Park, third-year student at the Icahn School of Medicine and operations leader for the taskforce. “Then, almost immediately the focus was on getting this entire workforce up and running and gearing everyone up to help fight this pandemic. It all happened so quickly.”
Despite their lack of hands-on clinical experience, several first-year and second-year students are involved in the volunteer efforts. Third-year and fourth-year students, however, comprise the bulk of the taskforce due to the extra time they have on their hands. And, while many recognize they could stay home, many like Annie Arrighi-Allison say that it’s difficult to stand idly by when there’s an opportunity to help others.
“I think medical students are perfectly bred for these roles. We’re Type A, detail-oriented, and eager to help,” says Arrighi-Allison. “People are ready to jump into these tasks.”
Maiyuran says she’s grateful she can aid in the health care industry’s battle against COVID-19.
“This work has given me a purpose and a role to fulfill pretty much every day,” she says.
Wide-Ranging Efforts for Extensive Impact.
But, volunteering at hospitals that are overrun with virus patients means students are potentially putting themselves at risk of becoming infected. For Dr. David Muller, dean of Medical Education at Icahn School of Medicine, keeping the students safe during volunteer work is of the utmost priority.
“We have a team of medical and ID experts who collaborate closely with students in screening every request for volunteers, and creating a policy that clearly delineates what is and isn’t appropriate,” explains Muller.
In the weeks that the taskforce has been up and running, volunteers have had an impact on all aspects of the Mount Sinai health care network. Tasks have included: calling potential coronavirus patients with their test results, tracking usage rates of in-demand medications at pharmacies, assembling face shields as early as 9 a.m., and driving boxes of donated PPE, prepared by student-led grassroots initiative PPE to NYC, to various hospital locations.
Many have also been involved in drumming up awareness of the nationwide blood bank shortage with the #OneHourOneLife social media campaign, writing assembly and operating instructions for how to transform donated BiPAP machines into functional ventilators, spending hours in labs conducting needed research on the virus, making rounds to pass out donated snacks and meals to hospital workers, as well as helping hospital workers with child care and grocery shopping if they are sick.
Because the Icahn School of Medicine is involved in the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, which researches the use of convalescent plasma in the fight against COVID-19, students have also been contacting and screening recently recovered volunteers to donate their antibody-rich plasma as a potential treatment for severe COVID-19 infections.
Dr. Mayce Mansour, a clinical instructor in the Department of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine, says that the student volunteers have played “an integral role” in helping to recruit and provide outreach to serum plasma convalescence study participants.
“With their help, we are identifying the community plasma donors who may help us save the lives of our hospitalized SARS-CoV-2 patients,” explains Mansour.
Arrighi-Allison says for her, ensuring those in the residency program at Mount Sinai have protective gear was also a big priority because so many of them are mentors to students.
“We have prepared PPE-to-go bags that include a N95 mask, a gown, a face shield, snacks, and gloves, for any residents leaving the main Mount Sinai campus to go to Elmhurst Hospital,” she explains.
James Blum, a medical student who paused his education to pursue a Masters of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, says communicating with families whose loved ones have COVID-19 by way of telehealth services has affected him the most.
“Families can’t see their sick loved ones and I hope we can bridge that distance by keeping them updated, explains Blum. “We even have a group of students providing emotional support to patients, residents and doctors through establishment of hotlines for people to call just if they need someone to talk to.”
Adapting To Constant Change
The taskforce leaders and all the volunteers on-the-ground are constantly in communication, but the leaders hold a weekly call every Friday to discuss what volunteers have been doing week to week, as well as any issues they may run into.
“What you know in the morning can change five times by the time the day ends,” explains Blum. “So, there’s a need to touch base often and make sure everyone’s doing okay and has everything they need.”
Taskforce leaders also connect with student leaders at the various medical schools in the tri-state area, including Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine among others, to discuss opportunities for collaboration (ie. PPE donations or coordinating donations to Blood Banks) and to share organizational best practices between schools.
As one of the first student-led volunteer groups in New York City, Liu says the leaders are now offering advice and support to the other institutions interested in setting up their own volunteer organizations.
“I have been so amazed by everyone. Now, we’re meeting with the different schools individually to help them in setting up their own organization,” says Liu. “If we can help others avoid areas that might have tripped us up, I think that only helps get more people on the ground sooner to help in the battle against this virus.”
The group plans to plan to use the working group as a model for future emergency response plans.
“Mountains have been moved,” Blum says. “I want to take that sense of possibility and imagination into my work. Now, when I’m faced with something people say can’t happen, I want to push back and say, ‘we can, and here’s how.’”