March 19, 2020

COVID-19: Out of classrooms and clinical rotations, medical students eager to serve the community

An internal Google doc circulating among students shows an extensive list of student-driven community projects including blood donation drives, free babysitting services for frontline care providers, and much more

The day the University of Michigan announced classes shifting to an online format and the United States implemented severe restrictions on travel from Europe, Kenzie Corbin happened to be in Detroit.

The spread of coronavirus was making the world a more uncertain place and Corbin, a first-year U-M medical student, realized that the threat wasn’t equally dispersed.

“I saw a group of homeless people and it occurred to me that, if even people with means are having a hard time buying hand sanitizer right now because stores are out, what does that mean for the homeless population?” Corbin said. “Shelters are crowded spaces. Anything can spread like wildfire in there. I went to bed thinking about it and woke up with an idea.”

Within days, Corbin and other students had distributed 100 mini-bottles of hand sanitizer — made from a homemade recipe and donated supplies — to the local homeless population with plans to do more. With all classes now online-only and clinical rotations suspended, medical students like Corbin are putting their extra time and their talents to use for the community. An internal Google doc created by Corbin and now circulating among the students shows an extensive list of student-driven community projects including blood donation drives, free babysitting services for frontline care providers, and much more. The list is growing.

First-year student Caleb Cheng is spearheading a student effort to collect surplus food from restaurants and dining halls that have reduced operations to donate it to Food Gatherers for redistribution to local food pantries and meal service programs.

“I feel disappointment that I don’t have more skills to help out, but this is an outlet to help the community in a different way,” Cheng said.

First-year student Serena Bidwell and third-year student Gabrielle Lacy are establishing a network of available medical students who babysit or nanny free for Michigan Medicine care providers working through the ongoing public school shutdown.

“We’re trying to support the folks on the frontlines of this pandemic. Already, we’re hearing through the grapevine that it’s getting harder for anyone to find sitters or nannies,” Lacy said. “A lot of us are happy to be doing our homework online while watching someone’s kids. That is one stress we can help take off their mind.”

They are pushing students interested in babysitting to make profiles on the “Family Helper” database offered through the central U-M Human Resources department, which is accessible to U-M community members only. Users must be logged in to both make and view profiles. Several students have already created profiles.

“I am so humbled to be part of this group of students and student leaders,” said Bidwell. “Under circumstances where most of the world has to shut down and create social distance, our student community is proactively finding ways we can step up. It’s very inspiring.”

In addition to moving classes across the University online, UMMS suspended all medical students’ clinical rotation activities in response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic, consistent with national guidelines offered by Association of American Medical Colleges. Faculty members are exploring ways to mentor the students beyond the clinical setting, including helping them channel and sustain their efforts to maximum collective benefit.

“While our classrooms might be empty, nothing will ever measure up to the learning opportunities presenting by this unfolding healthcare challenge. I’m proud that our student community is eager to engage,” said Joseph C. Kolars, M.D., senior associate dean for education and global initiatives. “The passion, creativity, and speed with which our students are responding to this crisis is gratifying and deeply moving.”

As Corbin moved ahead with her hand-sanitizer idea, a few initial trips to local stores proved fruitless, so she set out to make her own. Recipes are simple — isopropyl alcohol, aloe vera gel, and usually some essential oil to act as a moisturizer — but even those three ingredients are hard to come by. It didn’t stop Corbin, who put a call out for donations.

“I posted in the student group chat what we were trying to do and right away we collected 10 bottles of alcohol, five or six bottles of aloe, and some tea tree oil,” she said. “We ordered some small bottles online that are actually for cookie frosting but are the perfect size.”

She and a fellow student, Anita Vasudevan, spent Tuesday afternoon and evening mixing the sanitizer using a CDC-recommended recipe and distributing the mixture into the frosting bottles. Corbin even used a label maker to identify them. They dropped off their final product — 100 one- and two-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer Wednesday to the Delonis Clinic and St. Andrews in Ann Arbor as well as the Wolverine Street Medicine-partnered NSO Clinic in Detroit. They are already planning to make more — as much as ongoing supply donations will allow.

“The reason I got into medicine in the first place to be able to help in a crisis like this. At first, my biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be able to do anything as a student,” Corbin said. “I feel like this is a small way we can make a big difference.” 

Have sanitizer supplies to contribute?

Donations for sanitizer and hygiene products can be arranged by filling out this donation form. A Wolverine Street Medicine student member will be in touch ASAP with information about drop-off locations.

Learn more about Wolverine Street Medicine here and learn other ways to help Southeast Michigan’s vulnerable homeless population in this challenging time.

Story by Craig McCool, Communications Manager, Global REACH