Distressing COVID Scenes From India Inspire Medical Student to Take Action

With much of her extended family still living in Bangalore, Noor Shaik sparked an effort that has already seen pallets of PPE donations collected.

It’s not every day that a postscript in a medical student’s email to her faculty advisor becomes the starting point for an international relief effort, but that is exactly what’s happened since late April at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College.

Meet Noor Shaik, an MD/PhD student who, along with her family, moved to Bucks County from Bangalore, India when she was young. With much of her extended family still living there, the stories of resurgent, COVID-related anguish struck a very personal, distressing note.

Day by day, Shaik watched as the situation worsened in India, but her tipping point was seeing the story of a mother who lost her son to coronavirus while en route to a third hospital after being turned away from two others. After Chandrakala Singh’s son Vineet died in her arms, she was robbed of his medical records and mobile phone.

“Are you kidding me right now?” Shaik recalls tearfully thinking of seeing that heart-wrenching story.

We asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to shed a few tears and move on or are we going to do something about this?’ –Noor Shaik, MD/PhD student

Shortly after, on the morning of April 24, Shaik spoke with her grandmother in India. Suffice it to say, it was an emotional call.

“I started thinking about seeing her when I was younger, and how that may never happen again. My mother noticed me getting upset, which isn’t something that normally happens during those calls,” Shaik recalls. “After we hung up, we asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to shed a few tears and move on or are we going to do something about this?’”

They chose the latter.

That night, Shaik’s mom urged her to email her student advisor Dr. Wayne Bond Lau. Her P.S. read, “Also, I’m sure you’ve been seeing how COVID cases have skyrocketed in India over the last few days. I’m wondering if you know whether there is any way to collect PPE to donate to facilities and charities there? Or do you know who I could talk to for help facilitating this? Thank you so much!”

Noor Shaik
Noor Shaik and her brother Muzzammil unload a van filled with donations from ICNA Relief's SHAMS clinic. (Photos courtesy of Noor Shaik)

Dr. Lau then reached out to Anthony Moscatelli, associate vice president of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s (TJUH) supply chain. The results have been nothing short of amazing.

“Little did we know that would start the whirlwind we have now called, ‘Breath for Humanity,’” Shaik says of an effort that they’ve chronicled on a blog with that same name.

Tapping into their social networks of friends and associates at Jefferson, other local medical schools and entities and social workers in Bangalore, they launched a relief effort. Initially expecting to collect “five or six boxes of supplies,” much of the Shaik’s family home in Bensalem is now packed floor to ceiling with much-needed supplies, which will soon be shipped to HBS Hospital and other non-profits in Bangalore.

This week, TJUH’s donation of 900 pounds of PPE including some 20,000 N95 masks and some 4,000 gowns has started departing Bensalem for what Noor hopes will be a week-long trip to Bangalore. Financial donations will help pay for an experienced exporter, Dimerco Express, which has agreed to send the first shipment for free and any subsequent shipments at cost.

Noor Shaik
Shaik's family organizes boxes of gowns and PPE awaiting delivery to India.

In addition to TJUH’s donation, which required the team to use their cars (and two minivans!) to move it from warehouses and “a tiny dorm room” to Bensalem, Shaik says that ICNA Relief/SHAMS clinic donated tracheostomy care kits, catheter suction kits, nasal cannulas, adult heated passive circuits and more PPE.

SHAMS-clinic volunteers also helped facilitate a donation from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania of N95 masks, Sekura respirators and face shields.

Shaik, who is interested in a career in neurology and also volunteers with Jefferson’s VaxConnect effort, says donors are being offered heart-shaped cutouts to affix to boxes so that the items can be donated in honor of a loved one, which she calls “a small token of appreciation.”

“Here, I’m helping people get vaccinations, but on the other end, children are dying on the way to the hospital. There’s such a dissonance in that,” says Shaik, sharing that it’s particularly heartbreaking that this uptick in India is corresponding with the holy month of Ramadan, a communal experience. “This is genuinely an amazing effort. It’s been a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants mission.”

Noor Shaik
The first shipment of donated items left for India on Monday, May 10.

For their parts, Dr. Lau and Moscatelli are loath to take credit for their roles in the nascent effort.

Dr. Lau notes that he had contacts in place from working on COVID efforts here at Jefferson, explaining that it was buoyed by a spirit that, “Jefferson not only takes care of our family, but takes care of families beyond our doors, in the area and around the world.”

Moscatelli also speaks humbly about his role, noting that he merely freed up products for donation and told them when they could come pick it up.

“The real credit goes to Noor, Dr. Lau and their families who understood the need and came together to pick up and ship the supplies,” he says. “We do not see enough of this type of caring today. It’s pretty easy to post on Facebook how much you care about the rest of the world; it’s a lot harder to take action. This group took action.”

Noor Shaik
The outpouring of kindness was more than Noor Shaik says she ever imagined.

For her part, Shaik refuses to consider their work complete, hoping that the overwhelming outpouring of support she has seen can eventually shift from donating supplies to helping vaccinate the people of India against COVID-19.

“Until things reach the people who need it most there, I’m not going to call it a success,” she says. “I’m hoping that happens a week or so from when it’s picked up at our home, but many things are out of our control.”

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