At this point during an average spring semester, UNC School of Medicine students would be busy doing clinical rotations and studying for board exams, among many other academic activities. Because typical schedules have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Carolina medical students have found themselves with more time on their hands and a deep desire to serve. They quickly changed their focus and are now doing whatever they can to help local caregivers stay equipped and safe.
“Once we learned that our clinical rotations were being suspended and we wouldn’t be able to take our board exams as expected, we started thinking about what we could do to make a difference,” said Ellen Chiang, a fourth-year student at the UNC School of Medicine Charlotte campus.
Chiang and three other students there — Phil Barker, Tony Asher and Rob Short — all had similar questions: at this point in their medical training, what could they do to help their community and local health care workers? It started with simple notions.
“We thought having protected senior shopping hours at grocery stores in the Charlotte area was important, so we started calling stores and suggesting it,” said Phil Barker, a rising fourth-year student at Charlotte’s campus.
They also saw the need to preserve grocery items that can be purchased on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, suggesting limits on how many of those items could be purchased per person. From there, they continued connecting with campus and community resources to learn what more they could do.
“We were contacted by the leaders of North Carolina’s Coronavirus Help Line,” Barker said. “The line is operated and staffed by NC Poison Control, and they’ve created a paid position that’s being filled by students and nurses to help answer the community’s COVID-19-related questions.”
During this time Barker, Chiang and their fellow Charlotte students started reaching out to students coordinating similar volunteer efforts at the Chapel Hill campus.
“Our students have started helping UNC Hospitals Infection Control monitor the application and removal of PPE in the emergency department,” said Diana Dayal, a fourth-year student organizing volunteer efforts in Chapel Hill. “We’re helping to make sure there is no cross-contamination so we can protect the patient’s health while maintaining the safety of our doctors, nurses and staff.”
Dayal said they’re working to follow protocol from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is being updated almost daily. They’re also working to find ways to effectively sterilize and reuse some PPE items, like much-needed N95 respirator masks.
Meanwhile, another group of students is working to produce new PPE.
“We’re finalizing our design for a 3D-printed headband for face shields. Once we have that design down, we can use injection molding to increase our production capacity,” said third-year student Demitra Canoutas.
Canoutas is collaborating with other students to create these face shields in UNC-Chapel Hill’s BeAM makerspace — a location that helps Carolina community members design and create physical objects.
“We’ve been taking our prototypes to the hospital to have clinicians test them out and give us feedback so we can adjust our design if needed,” Canoutas said.
So far they have fabricated and assembled around 100 face shields, and aim to have an additional 1,000 completed by the first days of April. With additional volunteers helping with assembly, their goal is to produce 10,000 face shields per week in April to distribute within the UNC Health System. And with their design, the shields can be disassembled, sanitized and reused.
These efforts, and many more, started taking shape in the first week of students’ altered schedules. In the second week, more connections were made and bigger opportunities presented themselves. In Charlotte, students have started accompanying paramedics as they visit COVID-19 positive patients who are well enough to be at home but need frequent monitoring. Students do not make contact with the patient to keep themselves and their PPE “clean,” so they can perform tasks that would otherwise require the paramedic to remove PPE, decontaminate and re-apply PPE.
“We take notes on the patient’s vitals, help set up computers for virtual visits with physicians, grab extra materials or medications that may be needed – all things that would really slow down the process and increase the possibility of contamination if a paramedic were doing it all by themselves,” Chiang said.
Chiang, Barker and other Charlotte students are also collaborating with their campus’ hospital partner, Atrium Health, on several projects.
“We’re working with Atrium’s emergency department safety task force to create and post messaging about properly wearing and disposing of PPE,” Barker said. “We can’t lose our health care workers right now, so helping reinforce those PPE safety procedures is an important task we are excited to help with.”
While this period of time could be viewed as a setback for some physicians in training, dozens of UNC School of Medicine students are using it as an opportunity to participate and learn in ways that aren’t typically offered in an academic setting.
“I’m happy I’m of use during such a scary time like this,” said Barker. “Even though I have one year left of medical school and I have a huge amount I will learn as a resident, I still have a background that I can use to help somehow and aid in this public health effort.”
“I’m interested in going into emergency medicine and I know there are some EMS electives I’d likely sign up for, but this is a unique experience,” Chiang said of helping paramedics do at-home visits. “This event is so unprecedented that many things are being figured out real-time, in the field. I’m getting to problem solve in the moment.”
“This is a teachable moment in medicine,” Dayal said. “It’s not the traditional medical approach, but it’s getting involved in a rapidly evolving medical emergency. Having completed all of my clinical rotations, this is very empowering and an opportunity to make an impact in medical care that I otherwise wouldn’t have.”
There are many more efforts being coordinated by these students, including assisting in COVID-19 screening and testing and providing child care and dog walking services for health care workers. If you’re a Chapel Hill student that would like to volunteer, email Dayal at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in Charlotte, email Barker at email@example.com.