Rocking Babies, Reading Books

Armaan Jamal, a lead research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, spends his workdays probing the etiology and biomarkers of long COVID in people who are HIV positive. But when 5 p.m. rolls around on a Friday, he shows up, like clockwork, to his four-hour volunteer shift at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, ready to play.

Jamal graduated from The Johns Hopkins University a year early, in 2022, with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology, and he is taking a gap year to work and to apply for medical school. While juggling a full-time job in medical science with the time-consuming process of preparing medical school applications, Jamal relies on his weekly play session with patients at the Children’s Center as a stress-busting break that reminds him why he wanted to pursue medicine in the first place.

“Ever since I shadowed a doctor at a hospital in Kenya, where I grew up, I’ve known I wanted to be a physician who works with children, especially those from low-resource areas,” Jamal says. At the government-run Coast General Hospital in his hometown, Mombasa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Jamal witnessed pediatric medical care that left a lasting impression. “I watched surgeries conducted on children in outpatient settings, when they should have been in the OR, and I saw kids undergoing treatments who were all alone and crying,” he says.

As a volunteer, Jamal plays board games, offers homework help, and engages in art projects with kids and babies admitted to the Children’s Center. “I’ve played Jenga, rocked babies, read books, colored pictures and even let a little girl paint my nails neon green,” Jamal says, laughing. His favorite thing to play is Call of Duty, a video game in which epic battles unfurl across historical and futuristic worlds.

“One night, I played Call of Duty with a teenage boy and his brother for four hours straight, while listening to rap music on their speaker — and just hanging out and having fun,” Jamal says. For the siblings, the evening offered an escape from the gravity of being in the hospital.

The mother of another patient wrote Jamal a letter to thank him for the hours of Mario Kart and Call of Duty, and for simply being there for her son. “I was touched,” Jamal says, “and I believe no kid deserves to be sick.

“This position lets me give back to people at their most vulnerable — but I also get to be a kid again.”