Students Step Up to Help Jefferson Community in COVID-19 Fight

From a safe social distance, volunteers have created 10,000 face shields, connected with patients and more.

When Nishant Pandya arrived at Jefferson’s Bluemle Life Sciences Building on Monday, the MD/MPH student saw “thousands and thousands of pieces of raw material.”

There were plastic components, foam cushioning and elastic that Pandya and dozens upon dozens of fellow volunteers would spend a couple hours fashioning into face shields to help mitigate concerns about PPE supply levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The task itself was simple. You could learn it in 15 seconds,” says Pandya of an effort to produce 10,000 face shields for the emergency department staff. “The plan is for all masks to be used later this week. This is not planning in case of emergency. This is something tangible, that’s needed right now.”

This effort, among many student-led missions of COVID-19 inspired volunteerism, was led by Sidney Kimmel Medical College student Nazanin Sarpoulaki. It started Monday and continued with a second round of mask-making sessions on Tuesday. An estimated 100 students from across the University worked at multiple sites to reach that goal.

Student Volunteers COVID-19
Over the course of two days, student volunteers at Thomas Jefferson University created face-shield masks from three components.

In the role of Bluemle “social-distancing police” was Dr. Rosie Frasso, public health program director at the College of Population Health. Volunteers had to pass screening checks, remain masked and stay 6 feet apart from one another at all times.

“Everybody was hungry and desperate to do something,” Frasso notes. “It was wonderful to see all the students pull together like this.”

Pandya said that seeing Dr. Charles Pohl, the university’s vice provost of student affairs, among those making masks “spoke volumes to the necessity of the task since he saw it as the best use of his time.”

For his part, Dr. Pohl credited the student volunteers and the University’s “longstanding tradition of producing the future members and leaders of healthcare and providing excellent patient care to our neighbors” for the effort.

“Our students have been instrumental in assisting our healthcare teams through myriad volunteer activities, including patient triaging, collection of PPEs and child care,” Dr. Pohl shares.

“The unwavering altruistic actions by our students are not surprising to me and should give everyone comfort and hope for our future.”—Dr. Charles Pohl

“When our student body learned of the urgent need of the health system during the COVID-19 pandemic on Saturday morning, they immediately gathered, using physical distancing, on Monday to assemble 10,000 face shields for immediate hospital use,” he continues. “The unwavering altruistic actions by our students are not surprising to me and should give everyone comfort and hope for our future.”

When Sarpoulaki—a third-year medical student originally from Delaware who wants to go into emergency medicine—was pulled off rotation more than two weeks ago, she reached out to Drs. Edward Jasper and Pohl asking what she could do to help with PPE donations.

She then learned from Anthony Moscatelli, associate vice president of supply chain, about a company that manufactured auto parts—Atlantic Gasket Corp.—which had a face-shield mask prototype. They just needed volunteers to help put the face shields together.

Student Volunteers COVID-19
Volunteers in the mask-making effort said the feeling of camaraderie was palpable.

Over the course of roughly seven hours on Monday and Tuesday, student volunteers from across the University community then got to work creating 10,000 face shields.

“We had to turn people away after we’d sent out the guidelines. Have a little cough? No. Sneezing? No. Just no. We didn’t want to take any risks,” Sarpoulaki says. “Since they go through 300 a day, we’re looking to do an event like this again. I know that if I were in the emergency room doctors’ place, I would want someone to do the same thing for me.”

Several volunteers involved in the effort – Jeremiah Davis, Nick Hammerschmidt and Jenifer Matsuda – agreed that it was important to get involved.

“In this time of uncertainty, I felt that I couldn’t do much to help besides stay at home, but this opportunity proved otherwise,” says Matsuda. “It shed some light on the severity of the situation, and the camaraderie that can be brought from such adversity.”

Davis recognized that same camaraderie in saying that everyone saw “the importance of helping to solve a problem much bigger than our individual selves.” For his part, Hammerschmidt said making the masks in a familiar volunteer setting made it feel “a little bit like everything was back to normal” if only for a couple hours.

The mask push is just the latest example of members of the Jefferson family stepping up to help others amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two weeks ago, Alexandra Leto—a third-year Sidney Kimmel Medical College student and chair for the JeffMD phase 2 clerkship liaison program—received an email seeking peers to volunteer.

“I first reached out to students in my class, and within hours, there were 90 volunteers,” Leto says. “It was incredible.”

“It was a testament to how much students wanted to help, and it meshes with our purpose. People go to medical school because they want to help patients.”—Alexandra Leto

Those who initially signed up worked on an array of efforts. They included making calls to patients to answer any questions, and “pre-triage” them, or answering internal hotline calls from employees. These tasks, all with physican supervision, aimed to help free up staff to focus on other pressing responsibilities.

The patients were anxious, and many had questions. The goal was to comfort them, gauge their needs and help keep office visits reserved for those who needed them most.

“It was a testament to how much students wanted to help, and it meshes with our purpose. People go to medical school because they want to help patients,” continues Leto, who’s originally from Lower Merion, Pa. “When we’re removed from the clinical setting, as we can’t go to the hospital, they wanted to know how they could help and were willing to help in any way they could. People just really wanted to get involved.”

Crediting Dr. Pohl’s leadership, organizational support from Dr. Abigail Kay and her fellow members of the SKMC Class of 2021 for their volunteerism efforts, Leto says the mission has since turned into a huge volunteer initiative university-wide.”

Student Volunteers COVID-19
While the mask-making volunteers were able to work together, observing social-distancing guidelines, many other tasks are being handled remotely.

Nearly 200 additional students responded to Leto’s emailed survey seeking more volunteers last Friday. The students are not required to participate, but are asked to share their major, what school they go to, their expected year of graduation, if they have access to certain off-campus medical-record software and if they’re proficient in any languages besides English.

“It’s moving to see how many people volunteered,” Leto shares. “Being sidelined is difficult. People want to help in any way they can. This is the spirit of wanting to help the Jefferson community. It’s the nature of students who want to be healthcare professionals, to want to make a difference even when we can’t be in the clinical setting.”

While this is still a nascent project, and others are cropping up amongst students across all majors, the team hopes to institute an online portal this week which would enable departments to fill out a form with their needs. By “cutting out the middle man” in this fashion, Leto said the portal will help speed the process through with departments can request and find volunteers.

“This is just beginning,” she says. “This will turn into a much bigger endeavor in the coming days.”

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