Danika Baskar, third-year student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, contacted local businesses in Central Jersey to encourage PPE donations.

From dog walking and grocery runs to coordinating personal protective equipment (PPE) donations and assisting with new telehealth initiatives, medical students at Rutgers are volunteering their assistance to support the health care workforce, patients and communities in New Jersey during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students have created task forces to help coordinate their volunteer efforts—the COVID-19 Medical Student Task Force at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the NJMS Student Covid Team at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Their goal: to identify needs within the health care system and community and mobilize teams of student volunteers to help address them.

“COVID-19  has impacted our health care system in unimaginable ways, and as medical students, we feel that calling to help,” said Sally Tarabey, a third-year medical student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who is involved in its task force.

Collaborating with student leaders, RWJMS launched its COVID-19 Medical Student Task Force, with more than 40 third- and fourth-year medical students who were ready to organize a communitywide PPE donation drive, provide patient outreach and develop fundraising campaigns, said Kaavya Mahajan, a third-year RJMS student.

“Everyone is in an unprecedented situation and there are no official roles that we, as medical students, can fill,” said Sneha Swaminathan, president of RWJMS Student Government Association.  “It becomes most important to recognize areas of need in our health care system and pioneer our own roles. We are uniquely suited for this task.”

David Elson, one of eight students who helped start the NJMS Student Covid Team last month, developed a website linked to Google Docs, to create ways to make themselves useful to the medical community.

The 40-70 NJMS students who have volunteered so far want to help those on the front lines at University Hospital, Newark, who are battling the pandemic.

“We were inspired by our sister medical schools throughout the country that were doing this, and we knew we could help here,” said Elson. “This is pure volunteerism, and we want to provide assistance to those on the front lines.”

Services include everything from child care and dog walking to helping to collect PPE and 3D-printed masks being created for doctors and nurses. A similar database was developed at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to assist with this type of support, including grocery shopping and online K-12 tutoring and homework help for children of health care professionals at the medical school and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick.

NJMS student Reshma Parikh, who had spent 40-60 hours each week in clinical rotations before COVID-19, helped to care for the two young daughters of University Hospital infectious disease doctor Michelle DallaPiazza before DallaPiazza and her husband decided to send their children to their grandparents in Houston, Texas.

“I realized how great of a break from reality it was to work with children for a few hours every day,” Parikh said.

DallaPiazza decided to send her daughters to Texas because their full-time babysitter is over 70. She wanted to make sure her neighbor, their daughters and Parikh stayed safe and healthy.

“I am so grateful to the students who have volunteered to help out in any way possible during this stressful time. The sense of relief we felt knowing that the children would get through their learning tasks while at home helped us manage our chaotic work and family lives,” DallaPiazza said.

For third-year RWJMS student Erin Kern, knowing that her friends and mentors continued to work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in the hospital every day drove her desire to help collect personal protective equipment.  

“Health care providers are calling out for assistance, and I feel that I owe it to them to do whatever I can to help. They deserve our help,” Kern said.

RWJMS students have been reaching out to hair salons, tattoo parlors, carpenters, contractors, landscapers and others who may use PPE such as gloves, face shields and masks in their line of work and have extra to donate.

While some RWJMS students have raised money to purchase PPE from suppliers, others at NJMS have delivered more than 400 3D-printed face shields to University Hospital.

NJMS students also are expanding community outreach efforts through the student-driven Fresh Produce Distribution Task Force. This month they provided fresh produce to more than a thousand seniors and a hundred families.

“In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, our mission is to be the village that raises up our city during these difficult times,” said NJMS second-year student Catherine Ye.

Danika Baskar, a third-year RWJMS student, said everyone has a role to play in fighting this pandemic, from staying home to limit the spread of the virus to helping those caring for people affected in our communities.

“It is consideration for those at the front lines that really goes a long way, and we are trying our best to support them in any way we can,” she said.

Looking back at the past few weeks, Elson of NJMS said he is inspired by what the team has been able to accomplish.

“The famous quote from Mr. Rogers comes to mind: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Thus, while this is an incredibly difficult period, by being there for each other, we will get through this together.”