In my three years as DMU’s community and public affairs manager, I’ve admired students for their selfless giving of time and talent to our community, but all through the pandemic they really stepped up. They were juggling not only tests and board studying along with their devotion to the community, but also the threat of a worldwide pandemic. DMU’s unwavering institutional commitment to our community made it possible.
“Having the interest of the public good for our community and training future health care providers, this was a unique time to take our students’ education to a new level of how we respond during a pandemic,” says Sue Huppert, chief external and governmental affairs officer.
Rotations on hold, students jump in as early volunteers
Students’ community engagement during the pandemic started on March 8, 2020, when Iowa’s Department of Public Health designated 211 as a point of contact for Iowans with coronavirus questions. Since then, the lines exploded. United Way of Central Iowa, which operates 211, reported a 300 percent increase in call volume. I was approached to see if DMU student volunteers would help staff the call center. I knew some students were eager to give back, but some had asked me for any virtual volunteer experiences as they did not feel safe going out in the community. Despite this, I put a call out. Within hours I had names of hundreds of students willing to volunteer. Our students were not going to let fear of this new deadly virus stop them from helping those in need.
Pooja Gottumukkala, a third-year osteopathic medical student who had been sent home from her hospital rotation when the pandemic hit, figured working the phones would keep her mind active. She and her fellow classmates used their backgrounds along with information provided by the Polk County Health Department and the CDC to help guide callers. Though this sort of “telemedicine-lite” is not what Gottumukkala wants for her career, being on the phones gave her a deeper understanding of how scary it can be for those without a medical background to parse through science speak amid rising case counts and a deluge of obituaries.
“A lot of people who call feel like they are wasting our time, or they feel dumb because they are calling, and my first response is always, ‘No, you did the right thing,’” she says. “It’s been really impactful to see how just listening has eased people’s uncertainties, but also how having the screening line hopefully lets hospitals and providers focus on those who are truly very ill.”
Seventy-seven DMU students filled shifts at 211 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week.
Around the same time, Sydney Stanley, a second-year osteopathic medical student and president of her class, was thinking about how sheltering-at-home and social distancing are not options for frontline health care employees. She created the Des Moines Childcare and Household Management Resource Network to help with household and childcare tasks for members of the Polk County medical community, from physicians and nurses to pharmacists and custodians. Information about the network was disseminated via a joint effort with the Polk County Medical Society and central Iowa hospital and clinic systems.
Eighty students, representing all eight of DMU’s graduate degree programs, volunteered with the network.
“There was a need amongst medical personnel for support, and there was an excess of students who were equipped to serve this community,” Stanley says.
Demand for doses demands information, appointments
In December the state of Iowa began receiving its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers. On Feb. 1, 2021, the state expanded vaccine eligibility to include those 65 and older. As expected, thousands of Iowans 65 and older immediately began to seek further information on how they were to receive the vaccine. Many quickly learned that the only way to do so was to book an appointment online with the various entities who have the vaccine (local health departments, pharmacies and some primary care providers, for example). Because numerous Iowans lack Internet access and the technical savvy required to navigate all of the various ways in which one can acquire a vaccine appointment, the Polk County Health Department (PCHD) implemented a solution and reached out to DMU for help.
Carefully spaced-out telephone and computer stations, each surrounded with Styrofoam barriers, were set up at the Polk County River Place in Des Moines. A team of lead nurses now oversee the PCHD COVID-19 Vaccine Call Center, dedicated to assisting those 65 and older without computer/Internet access. The department and DMU recruited volunteers to answer phones Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. From PRN nurses to DMU students and employees, they are helping meet the need in our community.
Since its inception, DMU students and employees volunteered for 168 shifts at the center.
Students aid with vaccine distribution on campus
DMU worked with PCHD and state and federal elected officials to be a vaccination site. During the week of March 15, the news arrived: the DMU Family Medicine Clinic would receive allocations of the COVID-19 vaccine beginning the following week.
I’d like to think that DMU’s drive-through clinic will be the grand finale of our students’ volunteer efforts in this pandemic. This clinic requires more student volunteers than anything we have done thus far. Additionally, because our task is administering the COVID-19 vaccine, each day brings us closer to a safer, protected community and world.
“Receiving the email that confirmed our shipment of vaccines was so relieving and humbling,” says Megan Johnson, M.S.N., R.N., OCN, practice manager for the clinic. “This is what we have been waiting for – the chance to truly take care of our patients. To be able to protect those we have sworn to care for by getting this vaccine into their arms produces an excitement that is indescribable.”
Almost immediately the phones began buzzing and Zoom meetings clicking on as departments across campus started to work out the numerous logistical and operational details. At least 80 percent of the vaccines DMU received needed to be in arms by the end of the next week, or our allocation would not continue.
Thanks to the speedy collaboration of facilities, information technology services, external affairs, marketing and accounting, the DMU Vaccine Clinic was born. Students, faculty and employees all signed up to volunteer alongside the family medicine and radiology staff members. On Wednesday, March 24, patients with vaccine appointments began to roll in. At the clinic, set up in a faculty parking ramp, patients in their cars or on foot were greeted, verified and then inoculated and sent on their way. Some family medicine staff even got the chance to give their significant other the vaccine.
“Typically in health care you are not allowed to provide care to your family members or close friends, as it creates too many conflicts of interest, but I made many allowances in this area and have been encouraging my team members to vaccinate their spouses when they come in for their vaccine appointment,” Johnson says. “This has been a long year, and it is amazing to see both the relief and the joy on a coworker’s face when they have just literally injected this life-protecting vaccine into the arm of their loved one.”
Ben Peters, a second-year osteopathic medical student, volunteered two of the three days during the clinic’s opening week.
“As I collected the check-in cards on Wednesday, I heard one of my classmates speaking another language with a patient waiting for his vaccine,” he says. “I approached her later to ask if everything was all right, and she detailed the serendipity of their shared Vietnamese. Though the patient had not requested an interpreter and would have been able to make it through the appointment with some more time and effort on our part, how fantastic is it that such assistance could be provided here in the heart of Iowa?
“It reminds me of the grit and beautiful diversity DMU represents in the care of our patients, students and staff,” Peters adds. “We’re making it happen right here in a parking garage off Grand Avenue, and it’s been exhilarating to be a part of that.”
As of March 26, DMU students and employees had volunteered approximately 9,000 hours for our community during the pandemic. If these volunteers were given just minimum wage in the state of Iowa, $7.25 USD per hour, this would represent an economic benefit of $65,250.