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Stepping up: Upstate students volunteer to help during pandemic

Luke Slate, a third-year medical student from Buffalo, gave blood at a drive that saw many students volunteer. (photos by Charles McChesney) Luke Slate, a third-year medical student from Buffalo at Upstate, gave blood at a drive that saw many students volunteer. (photos by Charles McChesney)


Upstate Medical University students have pitched in to help, using what they have learned, to assist in the battle against COVID-19.

The magnitude of the challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic had barely registered when students began asking how they could help. First-year medical student Julie Ehrlich sent an email to College of Medicine Dean Lawrence Chin, MD, suggesting students could relieve some stress on frontline staff by shopping, pet sitting or running errands.

Chin responded within minutes, Ehrlich recalled, and soon Simone Seward, director of Upstate’s Center for Civic Engagement, was organizing ways students could assist at different levels, without being directly exposed to patients with COVID-19.

Katherine Forsythe, a first-year medical student at Upstate, helped organize an emergency blood drive. Katherine Forsythe, a first-year medical student at Upstate, helped organize an emergency blood drive.

For medical students in their third and fourth year, the arrival of COVID-19 brought a swift end to their clinical rotations (where students get real-life practice in hospital or other medical settings) and pulled them away from patient contact. “In an effort to help ensure the safety of our students and community, all direct patient care opportunities (including independent, non-school-related voluntary or paid work) are intentionally prohibited at this time,” is how Upstate officials put it. While honoring that rule, more than a dozen students found a way to get back to serving people by volunteering for an emergency blood drive held on April 2 and 3.

Blood drives around the country and region were being canceled or postponed due to concerns about COVID-19. Despite that, the need for blood continued. Students and Upstate officials decided to host a blood drive in Setnor Hall, a campus building separate from the hospital, which is where blood drives usually take place.

Katherine Forsythe, a first-year medical student, manned the registration desk and kept things moving as other students screened would-be donors for fevers. In the days leading up to the drive, every available time slot was booked. The two-day drive yielded 143 units of blood, about 20 percent more than the average two-day blood drive.

“Both the Red Cross and hospital leadership were very impressed with how well this went,” said Mark Kearsing, manager of Upstate’s Patient Relations Department. “Our student volunteers' dedication was crucial to the success of this drive, and I want to personally thank those who took their time to assist –­‑ specially those who also donated as well.”

Other Upstate students were helping callers to the hotline Upstate set up to answer questions about COVID-19. Stephanie Cortes, a third-year medical student, was looking for ways to help when she saw a posting about the hotline.

She and other volunteers received thousands of calls. Some callers were concerned. Some were panicked, Cortes said. Most just wanted to know whether they should get tested. For most, she said, the answer was no. If they felt poorly, they should simply stay home. If they developed a fever, they should call their primary care physician.

Cortes found that what she had learned about bedside manners was helpful. She would let callers ask their questions, express their fears and “just calm them down a little.” The idea wasn’t to downplay concerns, she explained, but to make sure callers know they are heard and get the information they need.

Cortes said she would usually end a call by asking “does this sound like a good plan to you?” And, she said, she would reassure them that if other questions arose, “you can always call us back.”

Zachery Visco, also a third-year medical student, took calls. “I was volunteering the day after we got pulled off rotation,” he said. He found callers were keeping up with the news and asking informed questions. Many were concerned about symptoms that they normally would not think about twice, he said. He would reassure callers that “more likely than not, what they’re experiencing is a normal illness.” However, he estimated 10 to 15 percent of the callers he spoke with were eventually referred for a coronavirus test.

Visco also volunteered at the blood drive, checking donors’ temperatures before they were seen by Red Cross staffers. Others volunteers involved in those screenings included Tiffany Shaughnessy, a registered nurse enrolled in the College of Nursing’s nurse practitioner degree program.

Anastasia Melnyk is another Upstate nurse stepping up to help out during the COVID-19 outbreak. A student in the College of Medicine’s certificate in public health program, Melnyk responded to a call for public health students to research how other hospitals and academic medical centers across the state are handling the pandemic.

Under the direction of Christopher Morley, PhD, chair of Public Health and Preventative Medicine, a list of healthcare institutions was split up by region and student-volunteers called around to ask how hospitals were adjusting to the situation.

Melnyk drew New York City and found there was some variation, but generally, “across the board they were hit pretty hard.”

Gary Shmorgon, an MD/Master of Public Health student at Upstate, drew Long Island as his region to call. He found some hospitals very busy and running low on supplies, setting up tents outside, requiring people to call before they could come in. Others seemed well supplied.

One measure of how busy things were, of the 26 facilities Shmorgon tried to reach, he was unable to get information from more than half.

Besides gathering data to share at Upstate, Melnyk said her calls gave her an overall insight: “I was kind of seeing how no one was fully prepared for this anywhere.”

Shmorgon, interested in becoming an epidemiologist, said the volunteer work was “right on point” for what he has been studying as an MD/MPH student. “We were supposed to have a lecture on global pandemic next week,” he said.

A number of Upstate students have pitched in to help the Joslin Diabetes Center pre-screen patients. The plan was for the students to gather a week’s worth of glucose readings so providers had more information when seeing the patient.

Sarah Myers, a third-year medical student, says the volunteer work has turned out to be that and a bit more. Because patient appointments have shifted to telemedicine, students are not only getting glucose meter readings, they are helping patients navigate the software needed for telemedicine.

Organized by doctor of physical therapy Karen Kemmis, who is a diabetes care and education specialist and Joslin education team leader, student volunteers call patients in advance of scheduled visits.

Myers says patients can share their readings electronically or simply give them over the phone. With that taken care of, she says she asks if the individual has a computer on which they can use WebEx software for a telemedicine visit.

Then the call turns into a training session, giving patients an opportunity to download what they need to, respond to dialogue boxes (for instance, giving the program access to the computer’s microphone) and finding the correct code. “It’s a challenge for me,” said Myers, “let alone a lot of people who haven’t used this technology before.”

Myers added that having clinical rotation suddenly end was disappointing for many students, especially as the health crisis became clearer. “We thought we could be helping.” However, the volunteer opportunities have brought another perspective. “They’ve shed light on other tasks and the differences we can make.”

Weeks after they began, volunteer efforts are continuing. Another blood drive is planned for April 16 from 7 am to 1 pm, Kearsing said. Looking out further, he said work has begun on organizing another drive the first week of May.

And more help is available. Ehrlich said that more than 100 students have stepped forward to help and so far more people are offering to run errands, feed dogs and generally assist those busy providing direct care than there are Upstate providers requesting help.

Upstate Health magazine cover for spring 2020, special coronavirus editionThis article is from the spring 2020 Upstate Health magazine, a special edition dealing with the coronavirus.