Not yet able to treat patients, Stanford medical students help caregivers

Unable to meet with patients and prevented from taking part in most clinical rotations, students at the Stanford School of Medicine have found ways to support physicians and nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From left, Nagehan Ayakt, Ruchita Pendse, Aviva Mattingly and Emilia Ling at a medical student-organized drive for personal protective equipment at the Stanford Shopping Center.
Nagehan Ayakt

Lately, Stanford medical student Erin McShane has spent her mornings playing soccer and going for bike rides with a 6-year-old. She also helps him with his reading and math, and she tries to teach him Spanish, without much success.

Kicking a ball around a courtyard wasn’t what she had in mind when she decided to become a doctor. But with schools and day care centers closed due to the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, McShane and her fellow students are helping Stanford physicians care for patients by caring for their kids. 

“I’m allowing a doctor to do her work, and I’m allowing her son to be a kid and continue learning,” McShane said. 

Medical students at the School of Medicine have found a number of creative ways to support caregivers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some are providing child care, others have collected medical supplies. And at least one student with an engineering background has helped design a type of protective equipment.

Classes have gone online, but many of the clinical rotations — during which third- and fourth-year medical students shadow physicians and interact, under supervision, with patients — are suspended. The extra time has allowed these students to organize ways to help their future colleagues.

Although many students are eager to be at the front lines of care, said Neil Gesundheit, MD, senior associate dean for medical education, they have to take a back seat during the pandemic. But they are helping fight the coronavirus epidemic however they can, he added.

The babysitting club

Before the shelter-in-place order was enacted, medical student Kiah Williams heard from her supervising physicians that many doctors would be unable to care for patients if schools and day care centers closed. 

“My classmates and I wanted to help out without many ways to do so,” she said. “Then we realized we could provide child care.”

Because Williams had been exposed to the coronavirus and was in quarantine, she was unable to babysit, but she started gathering the names of volunteers ready to help and providers who needed child care. She is now the coordinator of an impromptu child care service, with 57 volunteers — medical students as well as graduate students from other disciplines — ready to help clinicians.

“I take the requests from physicians and match them with a volunteer based on availability and age of child, plus the location of the home,” she said. She also ensures that there’s no conflict of interest — that one of the parents is not now or won’t in the future be in a position to evaluate the student at the School of Medicine. 

The service helps the physicians, but perhaps also the students. 

“I love it,” McShane said of her time playing soccer and bike riding. “I think it’s really good for all of us to spend time with kids. They remind you of what’s beautiful about this world.”

The collection agency

Aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a national shortage of personal protective equipment — masks, gloves and gowns — students organized a collection from the community. 

They advertised the drive on social media, contacted local news outlets and set up a collection center in the empty parking lot of Stanford Shopping Center. Making sure to keep a safe distance, they asked those donating to drop the goods into boxes or to keep the supplies in the trunks of their cars, where the students could retrieve them.

Medical students Maïté Van Hentenryck and Dasha Savage organize donations from the drive.
Maïté Van Hentenryck

“We had no idea what we would get,” said Daniel Bernstein, a medical student who helped organize the drive. “People showed up with all kinds of stuff. One woman said her daughter’s art program had been canceled, so she had a lot of gloves. Other people had thousands of masks.” 

During the event that ran from March 26-29, local residents unloaded 14,300 masks, 52,000 surgical gloves, 150 packages of hand sanitizer and a variety of other types of medical equipment, such as a respirator, goggles and lab coats. (Another collection drive is being held 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. April 3 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 4-5 at the Safeway at 645 San Antonio Road in Mountain View.)

Bernstein said that the goods will be distributed to hospitals and clinics in the area. Some of the masks are going to a Stanford team that’s working with UC-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley to research the best ways to decontaminate masks. 

“I know the stress the physicians, nurses and technicians are under, and I thought this is one way we can help them,” Bernstein said. “Every single thing we got we we're grateful for.”

Rapid-response face mask

Medical student Kevin Cyr has designed a face shield, a clear plastic sheet that covers the face and neck, that’s already in production. The shield is especially helpful for physicians while they're performing an intubation — inserting a tube into a patient’s airway so the patient can be placed on a respirator. Intubation of a patient infected with COVID-19 is risky for the physician, as it sends bodily fluids airborne.   

Cyr, who majored in engineering as an undergraduate and researches 3D printing of medical equipment, had been featured in a news story about 3D printing, prompting an Ohio company to ask him to develop a face shield prototype. Cyr contacted a fellow student’s sister, a medical resident on the front lines of the coronavirus response in New York, and she described what they needed. 

Working from his home computer, Cyr designed a shield and sent it to the company. Within days, they had a prototype, and a few days after that, a final product. The company, MakerGear, is now producing the face shields and will send them to hospitals with the greatest need. 

“We’re all sitting around and watching this event unfold, like everyone else,” Cyr said. “We’d like to be part of it. I’m glad I can provide some expertise.”



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