April 08, 2020

Medical students volunteer time, funds in the fight against COVID-19

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call-centerMedical students tend to be unaccustomed to unstructured free time. So when UAB School of Medicine announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical students could no longer interact with patients and classes and clerkships were moving to online formats, UAB’s third- and fourth-year medical students had to find new ways to stay busy and contribute to the fight against coronavirus. Many medical students have begun volunteering for organizations that are providing a variety of services to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our medical students are incredible people. When the third and fourth yearswere told they could no longer see patients due to COVID-19, they were understandably frustrated. But as a result, many have channeled their energy into volunteer work because they want to contribute, even though they receive no course credit for these activities,” said Caroline Harada, M.D., assistant dean for Community Engaged Scholarship in the School of Medicine.

When UAB School of Medicine got a call from Christ Health Center, a community health clinic in Woodlawn, that they needed help sharing blood test results with over 1,500 people who had tested negative for coronavirus, the response from the MS3 and MS4 classes was tremendous. Over 100 students signed up to call patients with the good news. “It was a really great response from students,” said Hannah Hashimi, a fourth-year medical student. “I am so impressed by everyone being flexible and stepping in to help. I’m learning that being a physician won’t always look the same day-to-day, and we just have to be flexible with our jobs and abilities to serve the greater need.”

Maahum (Maani) Kamal, a third-year medical student, also volunteered to call patients with COVID-19-negative results. “Everyone we called was very relieved, and it was evident in their voice,” she said. She said she and some of her friends have also volunteered at UAB’s COVID-19 screening call center.“People call in and you ask them a series of screening questions that determine if they should be tested or not,” she said. “Then you either schedule the appointment or, if they don’t qualify for testing, you can counsel them on why we will not be able to test them right now and offer recommendations, like encouraging them to stay in their homes and practicesocial distancing. So it’s a good opportunity for students to counsel, and there’s a clear need.”

Fourth-year medical student Wilson Ricketts has also helped staff the UAB COVID-19 screening call center. “I went the first day they opened and there were so many people calling in, everyone just had a lot of questions,” he said. “Some of the conversations I had were with elderly folks who wanted tomake sure they were doing everything they could to protect themselves fromgetting the virus, to talking to people who had direct exposure and wanted toknow what to do. I think one of the hardest things about talking to people on the phone is seeing the economic impact this has had on people who might be in a somewhat tenuous position, not being able to work and very much needing to work. It’s really heartbreaking to hear some of the stories people were telling as I was talking to them on the phone.”

Ricketts said, even with the interruption to his training, this is an interesting time to be a medical student. “On the one hand, it’s really terrible because there’s so much suffering right now, but it’s also a privilege to get to be present in medical training at this time because this is something that’s going to change the landscape of health care in the United States, and maybe even what it will mean to be a doctor in the future,” he said. “So there’s definitely a lot of learning taking place that is not part of the traditional med school curriculum, but is going to affect what it means to practice medicine for years to come.”

The medical student Class of 2020 found a way to give back as a group. Traditionally, the graduating class collects money to pay for socials and events the week of Match Day, when medical students across the country learn where they will conduct their residencies. This year, the School of Medicine was forced to cancel its Match Day event, so the class decided to donate that money to Christ Health Center to help build an innovative, temporary clinic for people with respiratory illnesses or fevers who can’t get in to see their doctor. The clinic opened March 25 and features four makeshiftexam rooms and can see about 50-60 patients a day.