Bond Shared By Five Students Fuels A Movement Of Volunteerism
Ben Zuchelkowski says it all started after a conversation with his research mentor, Mark Gladwin, chair of medicine, in mid-March.
“It all happened so fast. I had a meeting with Dr. Gladwin, and we talked about how the coronavirus pandemic was putting big stresses on the health care system. It was getting scary,” says Zuchelkowski, a fourth-year med student and research scholar in the Clinical Scientist Training Program. “We thought, ‘Wow, there’s an opportunity for medical school students to step in and fill the needs that may come up during the pandemic.’”
An hour later, Zuchelkowski texted one of his classmates.
“I felt like we had to do something. We brainstormed and pulled together some more of our friends to start organizing,” says Zuchelkowski, a Uniontown, Pennsylvania, native.
From there, Zuchelkowski and classmates Sarah Minney, Tejasvi Gowda, Carly O’Connor-Terry and Jane Kwon put their heads together. “We’ve all been friends since the beginning of med school,” he says.
With medical school rotations shut down because of COVID-19 and while working on any lab work they can from home, Zuchelkowski and his classmates have found new ways to put their skills to use.
“I am encouraged by our students’ volunteerism and commitment to coming back to the clinic and engaging as much as possible as student leaders,” says Gladwin, who is the Jack D. Myers Professor.
Practicing social distancing, the friends quickly collaborated using online tools to hold meetings around the clock to come up with ways to help the community.
“We decided the best thing to do was play on everyone’s strengths and offer help in different areas of life that are being impacted by the crisis. We all have diverse experiences to bring to the table,” says Zuchelkowski.
It didn’t take long to recruit more than 200 med school students spanning three medical schools—New York University Grossman School of Medicine and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, along with Pitt Med—to assist in their volunteer efforts. These include arranging and providing childcare support for medical professionals, helping a Pittsburgh clinic at risk of shuttering, and community and education outreach activities. They’ve since named their effort 412Med.
WITHIN 5 MINUTES
During her undergrad years as well as medical school, Gowda has volunteered at the Birmingham Free Clinic on Pittsburgh’s South Side. She says the clinic was on her mind when COVID-19 hit the city.
“The clinic has a program where uninsured patients can come in and get truly life-sustaining medication. During this time, we reached out to them to see how they were managing,” says Gowda, a native of West Windsor, New Jersey.
The clinic has limited in-person visits to reduce risk to its patients and staff to COVID-19. It’s also temporarily suspended student participation within the clinic building. But after speaking with Birmingham’s clinical director Mary Herbert, Gowda learned there was still a way to be of service: door-to-doorstep delivery of critical medications.
Gowda quickly solicited help from her peers through various Pitt Med student Facebook groups and email lists. The response, she says, was overwhelming.
“Within 5 minutes of posting, the slots to volunteer were completely full,” says Gowda. “People were texting me afterwards asking if there was any way to help, disappointed that the spots were full.”
“At Birmingham, so many of our patients could never afford just to purchase their medications at a pharmacy—between one-third and one-half of our patients have one or more chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma or a combination of these,” Herbert says. She adds that she is “beyond grateful” that the students have stepped in to help. Patients normally would come in from as far as the South Hills, Charleroi and Penn Hills areas.
Approximately 25 students are available to help.
Organized by Gowda, students signed up to work three-hour shifts and be on call to deliver medications to people around Pittsburgh. Students are still practicing social distancing and taking proper safety protocols, says Gowda.
“The clinic has masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that they give our volunteers, and we pass along the CDC guidelines for Allegheny County to our volunteers to make sure they’re aware of how to stay safe.”
Gowda says they are incorporating the addition of a box of food along with the medication delivery. The addition comes with help from Thuy Bui, associate professor of medicine and director of the Social Medicine Fellows program and the Produce to People home visit initiative at the School of Medicine.
On a personal level, Gowda says that connecting with Zuchelkowski and her friends is helping her through this difficult time.
Inspiration During Crisis
• Led by Carly O’Connor-Terry, a group of Pitt Med students created a plain language guide describing what COVID-19 is and what to do if someone experiences symptoms. The guide (shown above) was designed particularly for people with autism or intellectual disabilities; it’s also accessible to children and those in older age groups.
• Pitt Med’s Class of 2020 decided to donate funds the students contributed toward their Match Day celebration to the Birmingham Free Clinic, which offers free health care to patients without insurance; 412 Food Rescue, an organization that provides surplus food to insecure communities; and chef Claudy Pierre’s team that provides hot meals for underserved populations on the North Side. Faculty and students from other Pitt Med classes joined the Class of 2020; the combined effort totaled $25,000 for the local organizations.
Entire Pitt Community Mobilizes
Some examples that will make you Panther proud:
• Carla Chugani, assistant professor of pediatrics at Pitt Med, has been running a food pantry from her front porch in Dormont to provide child-friendly staples and basic goods to community members in need.
• Goetz Veser, a chemical engineering professor at Pitt, is using his lab to make hand sanitizer for UPMC hospitals in the area. (He’s produced 170 gallons at last count.) Veser is soliciting donations of alcohol from companies and other labs so he can make more.
• Faculty and staff at the Swanson School of Engineering and from the Deitrich School of Arts and Sciences donated five pallets of existing personal protective equipment to UPMC hospitals, such as N95 masks, peroxide and eye protection.
• A team at Pitt Makerspace in the Swanson School has partnered with a local printing company and the UPMC 3D Print Lab to create a single material plastic shield; the group has made the details and design open access—available and free for anyone to use. In the same spirit, Swanson’s Manufacturing Assistance Center Makerspace in Homewood is partnering with a local initiative to produce hundreds of 3D-printed face shields a day for health care providers in need.
• With students off campus, Pitt opened up Lothrop Hall, next door to UPMC Presbyterian, to house health care workers during the pandemic.
• The internet has been a lifeline during the crisis. Pitt opened its technology help desk to the larger Pittsburgh community. Other Pitt staff, faculty and students have stepped in to help answer the calls.
• Pitt donated 590 computers to Pittsburgh Public Schools. And Pitt volunteers are among those delivering digital devices so that families can connect from home.
• Pitt faculty and staff have donated canned food, including chow for our four-legged friends, as well as other essential items, like antibacterial soap and disinfectant spray, through the University’s partnerships with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Salvation Army, Animal Friends and the Community Empowerment Association.
• Sometimes listening is the easiest way to help. Through the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, Pitt volunteers are being trained on how to call people in need, listen to what they are struggling with and connect them to appropriate nonprofit organizations for assistance.
• Through the Pitt Shopping Helper program, developed by Ben Rottman, an associate professor of psychology, volunteers deliver groceries and medical supplies to fellow students, staff or faculty who are unable to leave their homes safely.