Philly healthcare students step up to help hospital workers

Terry Gao and Juli Debnam Med Students Unloading
PPE2PHL’s Terry Gao and Juli Debnam load a truck with personal protective equipment for healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO: PPE2PHL

Students studying health professions at Philadelphia colleges have been sent home amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, but they’re not just sitting back.

Many, motivated by a desire to help their colleagues, teachers and mentors, are collecting personal protective equipment (PPE) to help doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers treat those with the virus.

PPE2PHL, an initiative that has grown to include 150 local volunteer students pursuing a variety of avenues in the healthcare field, has collected thousands of pieces of PPE, including more than 500 N95 masks and 5,000 pairs of gloves.

“It’s just listening to our friends, our teachers, mentors talk about what they have to face at work and really wanting to be able to do something to help them do their jobs safely,” Terry Gao, one of the group’s leaders, told Metro.

They’re dividing up tasks. Some call businesses and individuals to solicit donations. Others act as couriers, picking up supplies and taking them to the Philadelphia Department of Health, where officials decide where the PPE is needed.

PPE has been in short supply nationwide, including in Philadelphia.

Artika Saharan, a fourth-year medical student at Jefferson University, said she has heard of ICU nurses being limited to one N95 mask a week. They’ve found ways to try and disinfect them between uses, she said.

Under normal circumstances, doctors and nurses would switch out masks between each patient.

“I don’t think that anybody signed up to do their jobs in unsafe conditions,” said Gao, 25, also a fourth-year med student at Jefferson. “I think we all go into this wanting to help people and wanting to take care of patients, but we’re doing it under the assumption that we’ll be properly equipped with the necessary safety equipment.”

Saharan said PPE is important because it helps protect doctors and nurses from catching the virus or transferring it to other patients. At least 99 healthcare workers in the city, and likely more, have contracted the virus.

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said municipal officials are exploring a range of options to procure PPE, including through the federal government and from sources outside of the country.

“It’s very tight, and the hospitals are having to be very careful about conserving the PPE we have,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Thursday.

Medical students have ripped open their own closets to donate scrubs and goggles for nurses and doctors fighting COVID-19. PHOTO: PPE2PHL

Students from Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Jefferson and Drexel University have banded together to round up as much PPE as they can.

After hearing about a shortage of scrubs, students donated from their closets. Others have contributed goggles they used in their first-year anatomy classes.

Following reports of nurses in New York wearing trash bags, PPE2PHL began accepting rain ponchos, a better alternative, Gao said.

As of Thursday, the organization had, in addition to the N95 masks and gloves, collected 92 gowns and scrubs, 52 shoe covers, 525 face shields, eight pairs of goggles, 30 bottles of hand sanitizer and 924 surgical masks.

The contributions have been large and small since the campaign launched last Friday. Gao said a company in Bucks County donated 500 face shields, while others have donated items they’ve had in their homes.

She wishes healthcare workers could hear what people have been saying.

“It’s just been such an amazing experience reaching out to different community members and hearing all the ways they want to be able to give,” she said.

They’ve also started a GoFundMe page to help support the effort. It’s raised more than $3,600 since Saturday.

It’s an interesting time to be a med student. Some colleges in New York have been rushing to graduate fourth-year medical students like Gao and Saharan early so they can be placed on the front lines of the fight against the virus.

Saharan, who lives in Center City near Jefferson’s main hospital, said she feels an urge to join the battle any time she walks by the emergency room on her way to the grocery store.

“I wish I could do more. I’d see people that I’d done my rotation with standing in their PPE waiting at the COVID testing sites,” Saharan said.

She wants to go into emergency medicine and admires the dedication she’s seen from healthcare workers.

“I know they go in every day with fear in their hearts, but they’re so brave,” Saharan said. “I really hope that one day I can be even like half of what they are as an emergency doc.”

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