“Given that McGill was closed for the first week when we returned from March break, we actually had the time to reflect on how the coronavirus was affecting different individuals and how we could do something to help,” says first-year McGill University medical student Laura Pinkham. Inspired by an initiative started by students at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, an idea coalesced quickly. “Our group came together fairly organically and before we knew it, we were having Zoom meetings to iron out the details of what we thought would work here in Montreal,” explains Zoe O’Neill, also a first-year medical student at McGill.

These discussions spawned the COVID Student Support Initiative, launched on March 24 led by Laura, Zoe, fellow first-year medical student Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen, and PhD student Adamo Donovan. The plan was to recruit student volunteers from health-related disciplines across Montreal’s universities and to pair them with frontline health care professionals in need of help taking care of everyday tasks such as child and pet care, grocery and pharmacy runs or other general errands. The response from the student community has been impressive, with more than 70 students representing five Montreal universities having already volunteered, including 27 from McGill’s School of Medicine, Dentistry, the Ingram School of Nursing, the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy, the School of Human Nutrition, and the School of Social Work. To date, the student volunteers have been matched with 30 health care professionals who requested support, and seven additional pairings await confirmation.

Of particular importance to the group is ensuring that these tasks are undertaken while respecting public health directives on social distancing. The students pair only one volunteer per health care professional (or family) and provide them with a continuously evolving set of guidelines and memorandum of understanding, which addresses this directly, stressing that if any volunteer experiences symptoms they must contact the team and their match immediately.

Plans to extend their support to other groups in need

Given the tremendous response from the student community – there remain 40 unmatched volunteers, as well as numerous students from other disciplines who have expressed an interest in helping – the group is considering ways they can expand the scope of their work to provide sustainable support to other vulnerable populations in Montreal, such as the homeless.

“One important initiative is addressing the current shortage of food and support for the Montreal homeless community during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Anne. “We are currently applying for funds, through COVID-19 Community Care initiative grants, that would allow us to expand the project  and allow student volunteers to buy food for shelters, as well as encourage them to provide their services to address the volunteer shortage these shelters are experiencing. We have created a platform that can be easily adapted to incorporate other initiatives and serve more people in Montreal.”

Positive response from the community 

With students back in class, it is important for them to be able to ensure they don’t fall behind in their studies. The group makes it clear that student volunteers are in many cases juggling a number of commitments, with their health and school being priorities. “We haven’t received any complaints and the health care professionals really appreciate students going out of their way to support them,” notes Adamo.

In fact, the response from the health care professionals has been positive. “We are getting messages in the request form itself expressing gratitude for the initiative,” shares Zoe. “Additionally, we have received very encouraging emails from health care professionals who are helping to disseminate the form.” Adds Laura, “The positive feedback from both professionals and students makes the work we do absolutely worth it.”

In addition to thanking the health care professionals for all of the work they are doing to fight the pandemic, Adamo notes that the group is also thankful for the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Bridge Program (www.icubridgeprogram.org) for their backend support in creating the form and database used for the initiative.

“We would also like to thank all the student volunteers who are contributing to the COVID Student Support Initiative,” says Anne. “Without your time and dedication, supporting our frontline health professionals would not have been possible.”

Both health care professionals who can use some extra support as well as any students interested in volunteering for the initiative, can do so by completing the form available here.

April 3, 2020