by Paula Croxson
We’ve all read reports of hospitals being overwhelmed, and over-tired medical staff who are themselves getting sick even as they work to treat patients and save lives. For the volunteers who were asked to go into hospitals and provide on-site assistance, the decision to go in was overshadowed by the very real risk of just going into the hospital environment during a pandemic.
CRAC volunteers were asked to sign up for shifts at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, a small community hospital at the northern tip of Manhattan, serving north Manhattan and the south Bronx. The work involves handing out scrubs to medical staff when they arrive for their shifts, so that they can keep their street clothes for the journey home, and not bring any possible infection onto the street or the subway. Usually medical staff get their scrubs from an actual machine, exchanging them for a token they get back when they return them. In the chaos of the response to COVID-19, the demand for scrubs went up, and donations of fresh scrubs came flooding in, creating a need for people to help hand them out, quickly. That’s where the CRAC volunteers come in.
“I just wanted to help. Do something. I can’t be a nurse, and I can’t be a doctor, but I figured there would probably be tasks like stacking shelves. As long as I could take off the burden from them, I was happy to do what I could.”
In her everyday life, Dr. Erin Black is a radiochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studying the movement of elements like carbon and iron in the ocean to understand our influence on global climate change. “I’m a trace metal chemist. I wear gloves, I wear full Tyvek. We go into a clean room. With trace metals, you can’t get dust anywhere. In theory, it’s different, but there are similar principles. I don’t touch my face, I don’t do that stuff.” Erin had been volunteering for Meals on Wheels during the pandemic before she saw the call for volunteers to go into the hospital, but knew she couldn’t do both because Meals on Wheels serves a vulnerable population. Even though she wouldn’t be interacting directly with patients, she would still be entering hospitals where many or all of the patients had COVID-19.
Like many of us, Erin weighed the decision with the help of a family member. “I talked to my sister. It’s not ludicrous, to go into a hospital, right?” For those of us who are young, healthy, and live alone or with someone else who is healthy, the statistics are on our side. Erin decided to go for it. “If the hospital workers do this every day, and they’re committed, then I can do it twice a week.”
Dr. Halle Dimsdale-Zucker is a neuroscientist who usually studies the brain and memory using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine learning techniques. Halle was in the early stages of collecting data for her postdoctoral work when Columbia ramped down research. “What does it mean to be an fMRI researcher when you can’t bring in participants to scan?”
When Halle received the email about volunteering at the hospitals, she did a risk assessment with a friend who runs some of the ICUs at Columbia to ask what it was like. “If you’re there, you’re very likely to get exposed,” her friend told her. But she knew that her friend took on that risk for himself, so she considered it, even though she had never seen herself working in healthcare. “I played out two scenarios in my mind. Either I say no, and I live with the intense guilt of knowing someone needed my help and I didn’t give it, or I say yes and it’s something I’m scared of, or I potentially get sick, but I will know that I did everything I could have done.”
Essentially, the volunteer work at Allen is a retail job, pairing and folding scrubs and handing them out as the medical staff arrive. Some of them just grab their size and go, but others want to request their preferred fabric, a matching set, the color they like. It’s a little disorganized, and some sizes run out before others - medium is always scarce - and sometimes it’s tempting to be impatient. “Who really cares?” mused Erin. “Yes, technically it doesn’t matter; we’re in a pandemic. But there’s probably so much they’re dealing with that day, and if I can help them find something with pockets, or in a particular color, it’s something I can do to make the interaction more positive.”
Left: The scrub station at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital Photo credit: Paula Croxson. The photo appears blurry because the photographer keeps her phone in a Ziploc bag while on-site for safety. Right: Volunteers staffing the scrub station. Photo credit: Erin Black.
“You could notice the whole mood in the hospital change when you could give someone the color scrubs they wanted.” Halle told me. “I could see everyone’s spirits lift. And I thought, I can make that happen.”
“What’s really hard, is that you can’t smile.” Erin quickly realised that the role is more than just handing out the scrubs. The volunteers are among the first faces that the medical workers see when they arrive on-site, where they pick up their clean scrubs from a makeshift shop front set up on the second floor. She compared it to working on the field sites where she usually carries out her research. “They’re on nights, they’re in a bad mood. Just smiling can really shift morale. What’s hard in the hospital is that everyone has a mask on, or multiple masks, and maybe a face shield.” Even though her surgical mask hides her mouth from view, Erin found other ways to make the human connection; smiling with her eyes, laughing, and talking to the staff. One nurse stopped by just to talk after losing a patient.
Like so many volunteers, Erin was nervous the first time she had a shift; many of the volunteers started during the peak. She didn’t want to take her mask off to drink water, or touch the door handle in the bathroom, even though she wasn’t working in the ICU or the patient rooms. But the anxiety became lower with each shift, the feeling of familiarity and the sense of being useful. That sense of, “Ok, I did something.”
Halle was amazed at how quickly she had to adapt. “Everyone was so normal - there were six of us in an elevator. That’s not social distancing!” She realized that it wasn’t always possible to keep to best practices. Still, volunteers are given PPE: scrubs, a surgical mask and a plentiful supply of gloves on arrival and safety is a priority whenever possible.
Halle also told me how an unexpected benefit of volunteering at the hospital has been meeting new people. Not only the medical staff, but also the other volunteers, researchers from fields as diverse as stem cell research, sex and gender studies, and esophageal cancer research. “It has given me this real sense of community and really valuing basic science research, just thinking about all the other beautiful research that is happening. I never expected to have that experience.”
The volunteers are the first people that the medical staff see when they arrive at Allen, and they are also the last people they see before they leave, tossing their dirty scrubs into a green linen bag as they go. The staff are tired, already on the phone with loved ones as they briskly walk to the elevator. But all of them have a moment for the volunteers, and to say, “Thank you.” One brought a volunteer a shiny red apple because she found him a scrub top with pockets. Another danced for joy when he got the color combination he wanted. Face masks can’t hide the humanity here.
Thank you to Dr. Barbara Noro, Dr. Chiara Bertipaglia and Kelly Butler for their thoughtful feedback and edits.
-Post 5: If not now, when? If not us, who? Perspectives on Stepping Up During Dual Pandemics
-Post 4: Answering the call: CRAC Serology Testing Volunteers Join the Fight Against COVID-19
-Volunteer Profiles: An opportunity to “meet” some of the serology testing volunteers
-Post 3: The human scrub machine
- Post 2: Biobank volunteers process 15,500 samples
- Post 1: The CRAC organizational structure
Covid-19 has changed what matters.
The CRAC team was born as a grassroots response to a pandemic none of us has experienced in their lifetime. CRAC has now grown into a community of like-minded postdocs, students, faculty, and administrators, from across Columbia University - a diverse and inclusive ecosystem of talented individuals with a simple goal: support projects to address what matters now, the fight against covid-19.
These are the stories of how the CRAC ecosystem has evolved and continues to adapt to bring life to efforts that became bigger than the sum of their parts. These are also the stories of single individuals who continue to inspire others with their unheralded efforts.