Helping the helpers: Two medical students launch HTX CovidSitters

The Houston volunteer organization provides support to health care workers fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic

Helping the helpers: Two medical students launch HTX CovidSitters

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Houston’s health care employees have been working around the clock to treat patients affected by COVID-19 and help stop the spread of this devastating disease.

But when their shifts are over, these doctors, nurses, technicians, EMTs, pharmacists and other hospital workers face challenges that have only been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Managing their households—arranging childcare, going grocery shopping,  finding someone to walk the dog—is even more difficult in a time of social distancing and self-quarantine.

Medical students in Houston and around the country witnessed this problem and responded.

“When the pandemic first really started up, there was a huge demand for household support and other things within the health care worker community because there was an increase in work demands from the hospitals,” said Madhushree Zope, a third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine. “To address all that, there was a national movement by medical students all over the country to help fill that need.”

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After watching their mentors and teachers work longer hours in more dangerous conditions, Zope and Aanchal Thadani, a first-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, decided to start a Houston group to help support the needs of hospital workers. What began as a Google spreadsheet of names and phones numbers that health care workers could use to find help for household services soon grew into a Texas Medical Center community effort.

Zope and Thadani launched HTX CovidSitters on March 2 by organizing student volunteers from TMC institutions including Baylor College of Medicine, McGovern Medical School, UTHealth School of Dentistry, University of Houston College of Pharmacy and University of Houston Law Center. Since then, they’ve expanded their services to include online tutoring, as well.

The group of approximately 180 registered student volunteers currently serves more than 40 families.

For Joy MacKey, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, the service is a “godsend.”

“I’m an ER doctor and I’m getting exposed to [the coronavirus], so I’d like to minimize my other exposures in terms of child care,” MacKey said. “What’s unique about the HTX CovidSitters is … that they’ve been very conscious about social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands. I feel more comfortable and more confident with having them come help with child care over someone who might not have that same background.”

MacKey initially contacted HTX CovidSitters nearly two weeks ago to help with her 3-year-old son.

“It’s been fabulous,” she said. “I’m very thankful that they’ve been able to come and help.”

After health care workers submit requests online, the HTX CovidSitters team matches a group of volunteers to each family to share the responsibilities. By limiting the number of different people assigned to each family, the team is able to fulfill requests more safely and efficiently, while maintaining trust and familiarity.

“A lot of the emails were coming from workers who didn’t know where their child care was coming from,” said Sunny Larwood, a UTHealth School of Dentistry student and director of volunteer relations for HTX CovidSitters. “They’re just so relieved to know that they can leave their kids in the hands of qualified people. … It’s one less thing they have to worry about right now.”

Due to the pandemic, medical students across the country were pulled out of clinical rotations. Many of those sidelined sought volunteer opportunities to do their part to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

“That need to participate in fighting back against the pandemic is something that was one of the key factors for us in deciding to go ahead with this program,” Zope said. “As future doctors and future public servants in the health care industry, this is something we felt was part of our calling.”

Zope is no stranger to academic shutdowns triggered by health emergencies. During her first year in medical school, her studies were disrupted by Hurricane Harvey.

“We couldn’t do as much when we were [first-year medical students],” she said. “It feels like I’m finally doing my part for the Houston community because I have the resources established now to carry out something like this.”

Although Thadani hasn’t had any clinical experience yet, she said that launching HTX CovidSitters has reinforced why she chose to attend medical school in the first place and dedicate her life to serving others.

“More than anything, it’s been really heartwarming and inspiring to see the community’s response to medical providers during this time and how everyone is now looking up to doctors to provide them with guidance and hope,” Thadani said. “That provides me with a sense of motivation that what I’m doing really does have value and I’m able to contribute to society in a meaningful way.”

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