WMed students volunteer and find ways to give back to the community during COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded and changed their lives as aspiring physicians, WMed students have refused to sit idly by.

They have set out to find numerous ways to give back to the Kalamazoo community, forging ahead and doing what they can to help in a time when – because of coronavirus – they can’t be in local hospitals as members of the care team, learning and honing their clinical skills.

As they’ve adjusted to virtual learning and third-year clerkships and fourth-year electives have been canceled, many have donated blood or volunteered their time to pack meals at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes and deliver food for Meals on Wheels. Others have sewn fabric masks for providers at WMed Health and elsewhere, or written cards of encouragement to residents at Heritage Community of Kalamazoo.

“There was an extreme need, fewer volunteers, and a lot of fear so it just made sense to me that this was something I could do,” said Marine Bolliet, a third-year student at WMed who has donated blood and volunteered at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes several times in the wake of the pandemic. “It’s a way for me to contribute and that was really important to me. I’m from Kalamazoo, this is my city.”
Third-year students Terrence Li, Marine Bolliet, and Kelsey Miller volunteered at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes.
At Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, Bolliet and other WMed students, including Jacob Baxter, Adil Khan, Terrence Li, Kelsey Miller, Christine Tran and Anna Trinh, among others, have volunteered at a time when many of the organization’s regular volunteers had to step away from their duties because of concerns about COVID-19. The reduction in volunteers, most of whom are older and retired, occurred as the level of need in the community quickly rose because of the pandemic, said Greta Faworski, KLF’s resource development director.

The students are spending time packing boxes with food for curbside pick-up and helping put boxes together before they are packed. Faworski said KLF is distributing 600 to 700 boxes of food a day to those in need.

“I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that we have this extra special volunteer force when we can’t have our regular volunteers, much to our sadness,” Faworski said. “There’s no way we could do the volume of service that we’re doing without having volunteers coming in.”

M4 Nicole Fledderman made more than 170 fabric masks for front-line healthcare workers. Thirty of the masks went to providers at WMed Health's Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine clinic.

At Meals on Wheels, students like Miller, Tran, and Arlene Ho, have helped Senior Services of Kalamazoo keep up with demand for daily meals. They are using their time to deliver meals to senior citizens’ homes in Kalamazoo, Parchment, and Portage. 

Tran, a third-year student at WMed, said she has never felt closer to the Kalamazoo community than she does now through the work she and other students have done for KLF and Meals on Wheels. Students are getting a chance to see members of the community at their homes as they deliver meals and brighten their day. In one instance, Tran said she and Miller, also a third-year student, were able to help a woman who fell inside her home while the two students were delivering food to her door.

Tran said volunteering in the community has helped her feel useful and given her a way to give back at a time when she’s not able to take part in her clerkship rotations because of the pandemic.

“I’ve really loved the fact that I am working in the community and being closer with the community,” Tran said. “It’s a privilege to volunteer and it just made me feel good to be able to talk with people and make sure they are doing OK.”

Miller said she has enjoyed her time at Meals on Wheels and KLF, as well, and it feels good to be providing “an essential service” to the community through the volunteer work. She said the chance to work with her classmates and interact with the community has also been helpful as she spent much of her time alone between December and March studying for the USMLE Step 1 exam. She returned to her regular class schedule in early March for a short time before changes were implemented because of the pandemic.
During the coronavirus pandemic, students have stepped up to donate blood.
“It is a nice way for me to feel like I’m giving back and not feel so helpless,” Miller said. “And it feels good to be providing an essential service in that way.”

Much like KLF, the Meals on Wheels program saw its number of volunteers drop substantially, as many had to step away because of concerns over COVID-19. At the same time, the demand for home-delivered meals has increased substantially, said Abby Finn, nutrition programs manager for Senior Services of Kalamazoo. 

Despite that, Finn said Meals on Wheels has continued to function fully because of other volunteers, including WMed students, who have stepped up to help.

“Most of our volunteers are seniors and I would say at least 70 to 80 percent of our volunteer base was lost,” Finn said. “The students, especially, were one of the first groups that noticed and began spreading the word to one another … We’ve grown a lot since the stay-at-home order and in Kalamazoo our number of clients jumped by 200. During a typical month, we would increase by 30 clients so that was a huge spike for us.”

Ho, who is a third-year student like Bolliet, Miller and Tran, said she believes she and her classmates are in a unique position in the midst of the pandemic. As M3s, they have obtained an enormous amount of knowledge and some clinical experience but they’re not yet in a position to fully be a part of patient care.

That reality, Ho said, prompted her and other students to “exercise our creativity” and figure out how they could continue to give back in different ways during an unprecedented time. For Ho, that has included donating blood and volunteering at KLF and Meals on Wheels. Along with other students, she also helped spearhead an effort to help faculty, residents, and staff at WMed with childcare, grocery shopping, pharmacy runs, and pet care, among other things.
Third-year students Terrence Li, Marine Bolliet, and Kelsey Miller volunteered at Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes.
“I’ve been really proud of the response by students,” Ho said. “I think it’s a testament to the investments that we as students have in the community and it’s a way to fight that sense of powerlessness that we feel. I think it’s awesome that people want to volunteer and figure out the things that they can do.”

As the pandemic led to the cancellation of in-person lectures, clerkship rotations, and electives, M4 Nicole Fledderman said the medical school offered an elective for the Class of 2020 in which students would find a way to help the community.

Fledderman, who will begin her residency training in Pediatrics at WMed this summer, said she decided to help in a number of ways. She updated the medical school library test prep page for students and created a website for parents and children filled with free online learning resources.

She also joined the Facebook group, SWMI Protective Gear Project, and borrowed a sewing machine from a classmate so she could make fabric masks for front-line healthcare workers. So far, she has made more than 170 masks, which have been donated to providers at WMed Health, Borgess Gardens, and the Hope Network.

“I didn’t want to be just sitting at home in front of a computer all day doing something that was important but maybe not as important in the grander scheme of things,” Fledderman said. “Ever since I’ve been here at WMed, I’ve noticed how philanthropic Kalamazoo is and each year I’ve been more and more impressed at how supportive the community is. This pandemic has brought all of that to the forefront and it has made me even more excited to be here and continue my residency training here.”

Source: Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine 
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