Alyssa Gabay felt helpless when the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania
The second-year medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine was supposed to be studying for her exams, but it was hard to focus while her parents — both health care workers — were going into hospitals without the personal protective equipment they needed.
“They’re not just health care workers. They are both people who get called into intubation,” she said, referring to the process of connecting COVID-19 patients to ventilators. “My mom’s a nurse anesthetist, and my dad’s an (ear, nose and throat doctor), and they were being asked to go into the room with no protection. I can’t focus, I can’t sleep knowing my parents don’t have PPE.”
She started joining Facebook groups that were sourcing masks for medical workers and discovered the project that would grow into Medical Students for Masks, a grassroots fundraising organization donating PPE to Philadelphia-area hospitals.
“We serve over 25 hospitals and a couple of paramedic groups and medical centers,” said co-founder Gabrielle Yankelevich, a third-year medical student at PCOM who is studying to be a urologist.
According to the Medical Students for Masks website, the group has raised $60,999 and bought more than 20,000 PPE items, including N95 masks, face shields, goggles and gowns, as of May 3.
Medical students at PCOM, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University and other Philadelphia schools volunteer to coordinate PPE drop-offs with hospital representatives.
“The beauty of the setup is the one-on-one relationship with the hospital rep and the volunteer, which lets us find out exactly what the hospital needs,” Gabay said.
Not every hospital seeks the same equipment.
“We’ve had certain hospitals who say, ‘We don’t need masks, but we’re in huge need of gowns,’” she said.
The organization has been able to speed up the delivery of PPE to hospitals, many of which are required to purchase items in bulk. The larger the order, the more time it takes to process.
“We are able to purchase in smaller quantities and get supplies more quickly. We can purchase, like, 1,200 masks, 500 gowns at a time, so it’s a little bit quicker for us,” Yankelevich said.
Sourcing PPE during a world shortage has been an ongoing challenge.
“Our original supplier was our landlord, who came to us saying, ‘I have some masks and I know a distributor,’ and that’s how it kick-started,” said co-founder Briana Krewson, a first-year PCOM student who shares an apartment with Yankelevich and another co-founder, third-year PCOM psychiatry student Judy Lubas.
“Our founder team is constantly checking the internet to see what’s available and what’s in warehouses across America. We had issues with products coming in from China and getting stuck in customs or not getting the product we originally asked for,” she said.
Yankelevich said the group bought their first 4,000 masks from Gray Matter Concepts, an apparel store that has pivoted to creating PPE. They also sourced equipment from PrideBites, a pet care brand that recently started making PPE, among other suppliers.
Her sister, Becca Yankelevich, is also volunteering for the organization. The Rutgers University-Camden law student is grant writing, matching volunteers to hospitals and collecting baby monitors throughout the Philadelphia area by reaching out to pediatricians and Facebook groups.
“The baby monitors started in New York as another element of PPE. They allow doctors to have less contact with high-risk patients, and they are able to use these video baby monitors to communicate in the hospital,” she said.
The pandemic has given many of the volunteers a new perspective on their careers.
Krewson is not sure what area of medicine she wants to practice, but is interested in primary care, surgery and obstetrics. She said the pandemic has made her consider the country’s health care system and its crisis preparedness.
“I actually have my master’s in public health from Dartmouth, and thinking about pandemics and the epidemiologists behind all this has made me reflect on this,” she said.
Gabay is happy to have found a way to help keep her parents and colleagues safe.
Her mother, Jill Gabay, works as an anesthesiologist at Main Line Health and is relieved to finally have the PPE she could previously only find in local hardware stores.
“They’ve been working 24/7 to get us what we need. It’s just vital, it’s so important. I’m a proud mama,” she said.
Gabrielle Yankelevich is grateful for the volunteers and donors who have made it possible for the group to help hospitals in Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey.
“This wouldn’t be possible without community support,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 3, and since I’m not able to be in the hospital, this is like the only thing I want to do right now.”
While Medical Students for Masks has been able to supply many hospitals with PPE, the group is still working to get supplies to frontline workers facing shortages. Those interested in donating PPE, contributing via GoFundMe, buying merchandise or spreading the word on social media can visit medicalstudentsformasks.com.
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