“Med students can’t be sidelined.” Lessons from volunteering during a pandemic.
by Emma Mattson
This month marks a year since the start of the COVID-19 Volunteer Initiative, a drive that included over 300 student volunteers completing more than 2,350 volunteer hours.
We sat down virtually with the med students who started it all: M4 Catie Havemann and G3 Thao Le. They share the lessons they learned about med student advocacy, public health crises, and community action during a pandemic.
Birth of the Volunteer Initiative
To understand the power of the COVID-19 volunteer initiative, you should first understand the mindset of Vanderbilt med students— including then-M3 Catie Havemann.
“I’m going into emergency medicine because I figured out that I’m fundamentally a person who needs to do something,” Havemann said. “I’m just not somebody who can sit and not do.”
So when COVID-19 cases spiked around the US in March of 2020, Havemann knew she had to do something.
“It [was] not really reasonable to have medical students in the clinical environment in scenarios where we would need to wear PPE, because it was most desperately needed for clinicians who are actively caring for patients,” Havemann said. “So the question is, how can we give medical students a meaningful, active role in responding?”
Havemann wasn’t alone in her restlessness. As MD and MSTP students were asked to stay home from the places they normally worked and studied, Thao Le too felt increasing apprehension. Organizing a volunteer effort seemed like a way both of them could transform that nervous energy into meaningful work.
“I also see it as a way to manage my anxiety and really channel what I signed up for when I decided to go to med school and grad school,” Le said.
Soon, Havemann had emailed Dean Amy Fleming with a few ideas of how med students could get involved. That weekend, the two talked over the phone and began laying the groundwork for a multi-initiative, months-long volunteer project.
By the end of March, Havemann and Le had mapped out the details of ten different initiatives that med students could help out with. Kendrick Campbell (then an M4) led a PPE supply drive. Ayesha Muhammad (then a G2) suggested a program where med students could virtually meet up with an isolated patient. Countless other students volunteered with the TN Poison Center Hotline and the Second Harvest Food Bank.
Le herself engaged with the Harvard Health Literacy Project to translate vital health information from English into Vietnamese.
“I was very overwhelmed [by COVID], and a lot of what helped me also during that time is to see how much heart is out there and how much enthusiasm people have in terms of wanting to help,” Le said.
Havemann came away with a similar message.
“In a crisis, we’ve got a lot of smart, capable people,” she said. “They’re not hard to mobilize. Everybody wants to do something.”
By the time the initiative wound down, 337 student volunteers (including 300 medical students) had logged over 2350 volunteer hours. Several of the volunteer projects were also awarded clinical credit as part of VUSM’s Pandemic Medicine Integrated Science Course.
If the volunteer initiative revealed the enormous goodwill of med students to give their time and talents during a crisis, it also showed in stark relief the health disparities in communities across the globe.
“I was able to see close evidence of the gaps that we still have— in our healthcare system, in our educational system, in our society in general,” Le said. “That’s not just within our circle and our experiences. This is something that’s experienced by the U.S. but also by the rest of the world.”
Seeing such huge disparities can make volunteer initiatives seem pointless, Le said. You might begin to ask if any real change is possible.
Still, Le has an encouraging message for med students.
“Sometimes it feels like what we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket,” Le said. “But at the same time, being able to see evidence of those things up close and personal, I can channel that frustration and energy into potentially working towards changing the system a little bit at a time.”
Havemann, too, says the project changed the way she thought about her medical calling.
“There’s a lot of different things I’m interested in, but it’s the mission of the work that motivates me, not the intrinsic position of leadership or whatever comes with that,” Havemann said.
Sometimes, this mission means acknowledging those frightening disparities and asking the right questions.
“What needs to get done? Is it going to get done?” Havemann asks. “Do I need to show up and make it happen? Or should I show up and help the people who are already doing that work?”
Sharing with the World
In Spring 2020, the two leaders presented the first fruits of the initiative at a monthly seminar by the American Medical Association. The seminar, which reached an international audience, focused on innovation in medical education, so the COVID-19 Volunteer Initiative, only two weeks old at the time, fit in perfectly.
In Fall 2020, as med students headed back to full-time classes and rotations, Le and Havemann wound down the initiatives but started looking for ways to share the lessons they had learned from the experience.
“We kept our eye out there for places that we might want to join the bigger academic community as far as talking about this work and hoping we can all learn from each other,” Havemann said.
A perfect opportunity for this kind of discourse soon presented itself: the AMA’s 2020 Student, Resident and Fellow Impact Challenge.
The challenge sought “impactful learner-led activities or projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and the COVID-19 Volunteer Initiative definitely fit the bill. Havemann and Le immediately started drafting a submission.
“We put our application together in a couple of days because I was doing my most important rotations of the year at the same time,” Havemann remembered. “We pulled it together. We had Dean Fleming as our faculty adviser because she was so instrumental in the project.”
The submission included reflections from Le and Havemann, an overview of program logistics, and stats about student participation. It was accepted in October and published in the AMA’s 2020 edition of “Medical Students, Residents and Fellows Making an Impact.”
The theme of value-added roles for med students came up again and again in their piece.
“There are a lot of value-added roles for med students not only in the hospital but also as agents of change in our community wherever we are,” Le said. “It’s evident by what we did during that time— in terms of staffing the COVID hotline, and delivering food —that med students can’t really be sidelined in situations like this.”
Overall, the high rates of participation and the thousands of hours logged showcased just how crucial medical students can be during public health crises.
“The most impactful takeaway for me was seeing in real time how much people felt they shared a common motivation, this desire to show up for the community, whether that was fellow co-workers or folks in the community who are struggling with food insecurity or answering questions from the public,” Havemann said.
In the end, that communal motivation brought remarkable unity and productivity.
“We have lots of disagreements in medicine about all kinds of things,” Havemann said. “But to see everybody put that into action in the moment of need is something that I don’t think I will ever forget.”