Turning Sparks Into Flames In This Unprecedented Time
Author: RemyGrace Sass, 4th year medical student, UNMC
Faculty Mentor: Allison Ashford, MD Med-Peds Program Director, UNMC
I read the first two lines of the email and then slowly looked towards my fellow medical student, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. We were in disbelief. Three years of intense focus and studying, with our noses rubbed raw from the grindstone, and then ‘POOF’. Nothing, absolutely nothing. We had just been completely pulled out of clinical rotations ‘for the foreseeable future’ due to the pandemic.
After the initial shock of being dismissed from rotations wore off, I panicked. My brain went into a complete and utter tailspin, and I had no idea where the ‘seat eject’ button was located. I knew guilt would start pouring in if all of the healthcare workers that I previously worked alongside were drowning in patient care and stress while being asked to make incredible personal sacrifices, and I would be twiddling my thumbs in the comfort of my home two blocks away. I would feel helpless, frustrated, and guilty that my future colleagues may be just trying to stay afloat, while I sat and ate Girl Scout cookies with my cat. This drove me to immediately think about ways that I could help from the fringes of the pandemic.
I began a program called UNMC CoRe: Covid Relief (www.unmccore.org) with a fellow classmate to provide student volunteers with opportunities to assist throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. At the beginning of the outbreak, schools closed to comply with social distancing recommendations around the same time that we were pulled from rotations. Many students were itching to help with the pandemic efforts, and many residents and physicians were without childcare. This combination was the spark that initiated our idea to harness the motivation and free time of medical students by providing childcare, pet care, and errands to residents, fellows, and physicians on the front lines of the pandemic. In 48 hours, we built a program from the ground up with an extensive database, information collection system, and website. Then the volunteer signups began rolling in. For 72 hours straight, we added almost 50 volunteers daily, and in total amassed over 230 student volunteers. With our little volunteer army, our potential to do good was mighty. And as the needs of our community changed, so did we.
Ultimately, the initial spark of this program grew into a roaring fire- UNMC CoRe is now a comprehensive multidisciplinary, grassroots, student-run initiative linking students and community members with multiple service opportunities such as organizing and allocating PPE donations, participating in a cloth mask sewing drive, and providing childcare and pet care to frontline healthcare workers. We have a partnership with our public school system to harness the incredible motivation and altruism of community members to sew roughly 100,000 cloth masks and distribute them with the help of student volunteers to schools and community organizations while including valuable information about the pandemic in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, and Karen- a language spoken in some Southeast Asian populations). We also acquire PPE donations from local and national sources, and we have distributed over 50,000 items and counting to under-resourced areas across Nebraska. All of these services have made a vital and meaningful impact on our community. For me, though, the real impact comes from the fact that so many students were so willing to help shoulder the stress and burden that our healthcare system and community members face every day during this unprecedented time. This knowledge fills me with so much hope for the future and gratitude for our community.
Our society has entered uncharted territory. Everyone is just trying to figure out how to adapt to this new normal. There is a place for everyone in this new world, whether it is facilitating change through advocacy work, providing the resources to help the idea of change to become a reality, or shouldering a part of the burden. We just need to help each other turn our sparks of ideas into roaring fires.