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Transcript: Medical students rally to connect with isolated seniors during the pandemic

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Narrator: The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for vulnerable communities across the globe, but perhaps none have been hit harder than seniors living in nursing homes. Not only have they suffered more illness and death, but they have had to endure months of increased isolation as nursing homes have restricted visitors in an effort to protect residents from the virus. Recognizing the physical and mental toll that loneliness can take on this population, medical students across the country have rallied to support these most vulnerable members of the community.

Alexis Bailey: “I hope you smile today and enjoy something special: a book, movie, or maybe this card. Thinking of you, Alexis.”

Alexis Bailey: Here at the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Phoenix, we’ve created a program called Preventing Social Isolation, and our first initiative as part of this program is essentially a greeting card creation opportunity for students. And so what we’ve done is left supplies here in the medical student government room for students to come and create greeting cards for isolated seniors. And what we’ll do is collect those cards and distribute them to people who may not be receiving visitors as frequently now due to COVID.

Alexis Bailey: A lot of these people grew up — or all of these people grew up – at a time when they weren’t connecting digitally, they weren’t sending emails, they weren’t — you know — “Zooming,” so the opportunity to receive a card and connect with people in a written format is really special.

Alexis Bailey: I think as devastating as COVID has been for this population, I think it’s kind of a unique opportunity to shed light on how isolated individuals are that live in assisted living facilities and live in nursing homes, so my goal is that — you know — COVID can kind of be a catalyst for creating this program and connecting students to these individuals. And so, while we want to do it now, the goal is that it will continue past COVID and continue to connect isolated individuals to students, connecting older generations to younger generations. I think that’s a really valuable opportunity that we’re trying to harness amidst the pandemic.

Narrator: More than 2,000 miles away at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, two medical students had a similar idea to form an organization called Apart Not Alone, which is dedicated to bridging the gap between students and seniors.

Laura Pugh: We left for our spring break at the end of March, and we’re in our third year of medical school now, so the idea was that we were going to go away for spring break and then come back and immediately be really busy in the hospital and on our clinical rotations — and instead, we found out that we had gotten kicked out of the hospital due to the pandemic and concerns around protective equipment. And so we were just kind of home in Baltimore with nothing to do and a lot of time on our hands. … Anthony and I had kind of talked and realized there were all these seniors out here feeling this fear and this isolation, and there’s also this whole group of medical students who have had their lives upended, and so we thought that maybe we could make some intergenerational connections.

Narrator: Laura and Anthony, another third-year student at Hopkins, paired student volunteers with senior residents in the community. Anthony also spearheaded an effort to create technology “How To” guides to help seniors navigate email and video chat platforms to stay connected to their loved ones. And Laura formed a relationship with a local senior who she continues to call weekly.

Laura Pugh: I matched up with her in the spring just before Easter, and so one of the first things — we had a long conversation and realized that we both like vegetarian food, we both really love animals, we kind of talked about different books we like to read and so kind of created a connection that way, and I brought her some little muffins for Easter and she still talks about how that meant a lot to her. … For me, it’s been a really nice constant; I have a reminder in my phone every week to give her a call. I think it’s really great for people my age to have a conversation with someone who has lived for a long time and survived their own set of different adverse experiences and kind of be able to share that with someone.

Anthony Salerno: Especially with the pandemic unfortunately ramping up again and we’re coming up on the holiday season, we’ve actually already gotten started on getting our Christmas letter campaign. So, we’re trying to get all of our volunteers to write a couple of letters to send to different nursing homes and to people who we feel like are in need just to know that somebody is thinking about them and just to have something that brightens their day a little bit.

Narrator: These students aren’t the only ones stepping up to fill gaps during the pandemic. Medical students across the country have volunteered to keep isolated hospice patients company virtually, have chipped in at food banks, provided child care for health care workers, and helped with public health initiatives, such as contact tracing and community testing.

Anthony Salerno: You have a group of students and people who spent a lot of their extra time even in high school, undergrad, grad school even — for those who did it before med school — spent a lot of their time volunteering and trying to look for problems that we could help solve. And for us, we were all prepared to spend all this energy on the wards and that kind of got taken away from us, and so we created something so that we could help out as much as we could … you know, having it continue through has been amazing and I think medical students are a really good foundation of knowledge, empathy, and power to just try and help people out, which is great.

Narrator: For AAMCNews, I’m Bridget Balch.

[End of Audio]

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