As health care workers prepare for COVID-19, medical students pitch in on the home front

‘We also are hungry to help,’ says one U of M student who has been organizing volunteer shifts for babysitting, dog-walking, and grocery shopping. ‘This is what we signed up for.’

U of M hospital
The University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2015

Juan Sanchez Ramirez and his wife are both doctors. Lately, conversations around the dinner table have revolved around questions of how they’d care for their 2-year-old daughter when coronavirus virus victims start streaming into hospitals, demanding long shifts and unpredictable hours from caregivers.

“We don’t have family in state,” Sanchez Ramirez said. “Obviously, we want to be at the hospitals doing what we can to help.”

Ramirez is grateful that a group of University of Minnesota medical students, who are no longer physically attending classes due to the pandemic, have started to organize themselves to help medical providers when the expected coronavirus surge happens.

The students are offering to assist doctors, nurses and others with babysitting, dog-walking or chores like grocery shopping so they can focus on taking care of patients.

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“It will allow us not to have to miss work unless someone in the family is quarantined,” Sanchez Ramirez said. “It will allow us to be at the hospital, at the clinic, helping people.”

University of Minnesota medical student Sruthi Shankar
University of Minnesota medical student Sruthi Shankar
Submitted photo

The University of Minnesota medical students are mostly too early in their education to have clinical experience that could help in actual medical treatment, said co-organizer Sruthi Shankar.

“From what I’ve seen coming out of other places like China and Italy, we’re just kind of hitting the front end of the storm, and it’s perhaps going to get more intense and stressful,” Shankar said. “We could see that people needed us, and we also are hungry to help. We want to be there because this is what we signed up for.”

The medical students at the university are inspired by French medical students, and students on both coasts, who have taken similar steps, said co-organizer Sara Lederman, a second-year medical student.

“Medicine is so much more about what happens in the walls of a hospital, it’s helping every way you can,” Lederman said. “It’s about service, and that’s sort of the spirit that a lot of my peers came into medical school valuing.”

In the first day after the plan launched Friday, dozens of students had already volunteered to help. At first, it was friends and acquaintances, but now Lederman doesn’t know the students who are volunteering.

The online surveys the students are using allow volunteers to check boxes showing the services they can offer, like grocery shopping or babysitting. Lederman said some volunteers are suggesting more unique forms of support, including one person who said they were “willing to just talk to people on the phone if they’re feeling lonely.”

It’s important to the medical students that they connect volunteers with medical providers in a way that’s safest for everyone during this uncertain time of viral pandemic.

“Having the impulse to help obviously is really beautiful and really exciting and really good, at the same time we want to make sure that it’s done in a way that’s controlled,” Lederman said. “That’s the due diligence that needs to be done on the part of anyone who is organizing to help during these really scary times.”

Medical providers are already adjusting their schedules and changing vacation plans to get ready for the expected surge in infections to hit hospitals, said Dr. Renée Crichlow, a family medicine physician and faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s medical school.

The all-hands-on-deck approach is an attempt to build capacity at hospitals for the surge as the sickest and most severely-affected patients seek treatment, Crichlow said.

“That kind of surge capacity is great for workforce, but it’s really challenging for family: the idea that we’ll be doing more overnight calls, more frequent calls, longer calls,” Crichlow said. “You still need to feed your families, you still need to get groceries, you still need to be sure your kids, especially your younger kids, are well-cared for.”

Medical providers will need help from the broader society to make sure their own families are taken care of as they care for members of other people’s families, Crichlow said.

“The biggest thing is, we’re out there trying to care for the public, and it’s really, really heartening that there are people thinking about caring for the folks that are on the frontlines,” Crichlow said. “We talk about a surge capacity for the workforce, I feel like they’re a surge capacity for compassion.”