These Medical Students Are Finding Creative Ways to Serve During the Pandemic

Before Charlotte Tisch went to medical school, the former Egyptian archaeology major spent two-and-a-half years interning in a museum’s conservation department. The job was fun, she says, but she figured it was behind her once she started training to become a doctor.

Then, midway through her first year at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, COVID-19 began its deadly spread across the globe, with healthcare workers scrambling to deal with shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, on the front lines of the pandemic.

Inspired by their heroic work, Tisch felt a “personal call to action.” She wanted to help hospitals find PPE—and she knew just where to look. Major museums use masks, gloves, and goggles for cleaning and repairing paintings and artifacts. As it turned out, museums—closed indefinitely during the pandemic—were more than happy to donate their protective equipment to hospitals in need. And Tisch was happy she could be of service, even from self-isolation.

“I think a lot of us wish there was more that we could do right now,” she says.

Tisch is one of thousands of medical students in the Philadelphia area who have rapidly mobilized (independently of their schools) to support healthcare workers and other vulnerable community members during the COVID-19 crisis.

Since March 19, a Facebook group called the Philadelphia Organization of Health Professions Students (POHPS) has hosted a lot of these organizing efforts, where volunteers have been divided into committees and launched an impressive array of projects. Students are doggedly tracking down untapped PPE resources, coordinating donation pick-up and drop-off, and distributing public health resources. The POHPS group’s members say have plenty more projects in the pipeline—while making sure all their efforts comply with recommended practices.

“The level at which everybody is communicating and fighting is something I’ve never seen before.”

Many students like Tisch had been independently doing their part to contribute to COVID-19 response, but it was Ramie Fathy, a Perelman third-year, who centralized their efforts in the fast-growing private Facebook group.

After his dermatology rotation was suspended due to the novel coronavirus, Fathy found himself stuck at home reading the latest news all day. So he created the POHPS Facebook group to pool ideas between the many medical students seeking ways to keep their community safe.

He first opened the POHPS group to medical students, then people studying nursing, dentistry, podiatry, public health, and even veterinary medicine. Thousands of future medical professionals were eager to lend a hand. Others used the group to promote their own existing projects—like a student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine who launched a fundraiser that’s raised over $33,000 to buy N95 masks.

“The level at which everybody is communicating and fighting is something I’ve never seen before,” Fathy says.

A recent POHPS team meeting over video chat. (Fathy is in the top row, second from the left.)
Ramie Fathy

Terry Gao, a fourth-year at Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, has converted her storage room in her apartment building into a pick-up and drop-off hub for PPE donations. She helps run an initiative called “PPE 2 PHL,” where she organizes volunteer “couriers” to collect and transport donations from untapped PPE resources like construction sites, tattoo parlors, art schools, research labs, and nail salons.

“I didn’t know some nail salons have staff wear N95s when they’re doing nail grinding and filing,” Gao says.

Once the couriers have secured the donations, Gao works with another student on the distribution side of the program to make sure the PPE gets where it needs to go. Virtual meetings and phone calls focusing on the enterprise now fill Gao’s days.

Gao’s immediate family members work in the healthcare field, which gives her extra motivation to collect and distribute as much PPE as possible.

“When I see articles about national shortages, and front-line healthcare workers being exposed and risking their lives, that to me reads on a very personal level,” she says. “I can’t help but see those words replaced by ‘your mom and your sister are out risking their lives, and you’re about to be a surgical intern, and you’re not doing anything but sitting at home and attending online lectures’—which matter for my education, but it’s just much less impactful.”

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Perelman third-year Eden Engel-Rebitzer, whose sub-internship at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs was suspended due to COVID-19, is trying to keep a positive mindset about operating from home these days.

From a workstation in her bedroom, she’s setting up grocery deliveries for medical residents, collecting infographics in different languages to share with the public, and helping organize the committees within POHPS. She says she still wants to compile resources to help Philadelphia community members understand a range of topics, including how to access needle exchanges and what to do if your landlord evicts you during the pandemic.

“It’s always hard to lose the opportunity to have a really cool training experience,” she says of her suspended sub-internship, “but for all of us, [the disappointment] has been overshadowed by the sense of mission around the coronavirus.”

Men’s Health asked Engel-Rebitzer how many hours a day she’s working on pandemic-related initiatives.

“All of them,” she replied.

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