Johns Hopkins Medical Students Mobilize to Volunteer for the Community During COVID-19 Pandemic

Medical student Laura Pugh, co-founder of Apart Not Alone, delivers groceries every Saturday to a West Baltimore woman who is homebound.

Published in Dome - Dome May/June 2020 and Dome - Coronavirus (COVID-19) Articles March — June 2020

Photo by Will Kirk

When their classes were canceled, Laura Pugh and Anthony Salerno founded Apart Not Alone to help combat social isolation among older adults.

In late March, with coronavirus spreading throughout the United States and nearly universal stay-at-home orders, Laura Pugh began thinking about her grandmother in Oregon. Worried that the outgoing woman would have a hard time being cooped up and isolated, the Johns Hopkins medical student and her family helped set her grandmother up on Zoom to maintain a virtual form of human interaction.

“It just made me think about people who might not have a lot of family in their life, or might not have an easy time adjusting to new technology, and all these people being stuck in their houses,” Pugh says. The rising third-year medical student also reflected on the older people in Montana she had worked with through a food bank. “Seniors were facing loneliness before this pandemic,” Pugh says, “and I thought how much that would be escalated during this time.”

Such concerns inspired Pugh, along with fellow rising third-year student Anthony Salerno, to found Apart Not Alone in March. The volunteer organization aims to combat social isolation among older adults through check-in phone calls; by helping them set up video chat, email and social media accounts; and by delivering orders from grocery stores and pharmacies. The program’s participants are referred through senior centers and independent living organizations as well as through the Johns Hopkins Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), a home care program for patients who live near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

When SOURCE, the community engagement and service-learning center for The Johns Hopkins University’s schools of public health, nursing and medicine, helped spread the word about Apart Not Alone, volunteers came pouring in. With in-person medical classes canceled, more than 150 people signed up to serve 20 participants. The organization has since expanded its efforts so volunteers can help other community programs in need.

“It’s a confusing time as a medical student to try to figure out how to spend your time and what to do when you’re not in rotations,” Pugh says. “It’s been really heartwarming to see that people’s gut instinct was, ‘I’m not doing what I want to do, so how can I be of service to someone else?’”

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Generating Volunteer Opportunities

Realizing that Apart Not Alone has an overabundance of help, rising fourth-year medical student Barbara Dietrick is among those helping the organization find other activities for the eager volunteers, a group that also includes University of Maryland medical students. Dozens of volunteers have been connected with various projects through the organization. And a Georgetown University medical student founded a Washington chapter.

Dietrick facilitated getting volunteers paired with hospitalized patients at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center to help them get set up with technology using a guide that Apart Not Alone created. The volunteers also became partners of patients without family or other loved ones to talk to. (Apart Not Alone is setting up a partnership with No One Dies Alone, a Johns Hopkins Medicine program in which volunteers sit with and provide compassion for patients who are near death and do not have family or close friends.)

Apart Not Alone is also helping the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center foster a sense of connection between patients with COVID-19 in its intensive care unit (ICU) — especially those who are intubated and may have trouble speaking — and their families. About 10 volunteers, including a University of Oregon law student, are now engaged in a craft project: crocheting pairs of hearts, one for the patient in the ICU and one for the family at home.

For her part, Pugh has been shopping and delivering groceries for an older woman in West Baltimore who lives alone and whose only child is out of state. They also talk on the phone a couple of times each week about what TV shows the woman is watching and what books they’re each reading — Pugh even loaned her a book: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a nonfiction story about the American rowing team that won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

“She’s really grateful and enthusiastic,” Pugh says. “Whenever I drop off groceries, she calls me as she’s going through them and says, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I wanted.’

“The whole crisis really makes you think about what it means to be a doctor and what it means to serve your community. It’s made me think about the importance of looking at your patient as a whole person.”

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic have also reinforced Dietrick’s belief that patient care extends beyond just treating an illness.

“During my third year of medical school, I noticed patients felt isolated not only during their hospitalization, but as a result of their illness itself,” she says. “We’re hoping Apart Not Alone can provide a role in helping with connection, comfort and companionship.”

The organization is also directing volunteers to Meals on Wheels, another way to serve older and shut-in community members through phone check-ins and help with deliveries. Working with the Baltimore Neighbors Network, about 20 Apart Not Alone volunteers are calling vulnerable residents to provide mental health support and to connect them with additional resources. Others from the organization are writing letters to nursing home residents.

“I think all these small efforts really make a difference when we are all doing it together,” Dietrick says.

Connecting Emotionally with Underserved Communities

The pandemic has reconnected some medical students with communities they have already served. Jawara Allen, an M.D.-Ph.D. student specializing in microbiology and genomics, spent a few days volunteering at an emergency food distribution center at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where he had previously performed community service work. In addition to free meals, the site provided work packets for kids who do not have access to online learning.

Allen recently wrote an Op-Ed in The Journal of Infectious Diseases about the growing need for infectious disease specialists that has been demonstrated by COVID-19’s impact on underserved communities. He says volunteering provides real-world connections that help him see beyond the classroom.

“The experience allowed me to connect emotionally with the communities, people, problems and solutions that I have previously connected with intellectually,” he says. “When I connect with a community, and the individuals in it, I can see my place, as a physician-scientist, in that community.”