In Focus
Apr 3, 2020

On the Frontlines and Behind the Scenes, Students Help Fight the Virus

Around the country, thousands of students – medical and otherwise – are volunteering to help fight the coronavirus.

Emma DonohoeScience & Research Correspondent
Margaret Ellen Clerkin, a student in graduate medicine in UCD, has set up a service to match up student volunteers and pharmacies.
Kathleen Harris/Irish Times

The coronavirus pandemic has focused a spotlight on the work of healthcare professionals across the world. Everywhere, members of the public are cognisant of those on the frontlines more than ever before, and public displays of appreciation for doctors and nurses are increasingly commonplace.

But there’s another, less discussed, cohort likely to play a vital role in mitigating the worst of the crisis: students volunteering to work in hospitals, or bringing medicine to those who need it.

Last week, medicine students in Trinity were asked to volunteer for work in intensive care units in Tallaght and St James’s Hospital. The uptake has been huge, Prof Joe Harbison, the director of undergraduate teaching in the College’s School of Medicine, says in an email. “We’ve had more than 200 medical students volunteering for various roles e.g. contact tracing, advice lines and supporting other roles”, he says. “I think as things go on, more and more of them will be asked to help out in different ways.”


The government says students’ effort hasn’t gone unnoticed – Minister for Health Simon Harris writes in an email to The University Times that “often at our most difficult junctures, our young people have been leaders and the rest of us have followed”. Students, he adds, “can be at the centre of our response to this crisis”.

However young people feel about the government, the decision to sign up was a “no brainer” for many. Alannah Lavelle, a medicine student in Trinity, writes in an email that “I would rather be a part of this thing than sit on the sidelines when I know I can help”.

It’d feel kind of weird to not do it, with the idea of someone who’s older and more at risk doing the same job

“Luckily I am a young, healthy individual and I also do not live with my family (or anyone right now for that matter) in Dublin and I have my own car so I did not have to consider family members or others who I may be putting at risk with my decision.”

Many students not living at home see volunteering as almost an obligation – including David Noone, a third-year medical student who has put his name forward to work in intensive care units. The work involves moving coronavirus patients onto their stomach and back again to help with ventilation. It’s not without risk – even with training and personal protective equipment, there’s still a chance of infection – but Noone says “it’d feel kind of weird to not do it, with the idea of someone who’s older and more at risk doing the same job”.

Noone isn’t put off by the prospect of self-isolating between voluntary shifts – he says he’ll be “knocking around the house by himself” anyway.

But it’s worth remembering that for some students, volunteering on the frontlines isn’t an option. Caoimhe Gaughan is another third-year medicine student, who got the email requesting volunteers. But Gaughan lives with an elderly person – in the high-risk category for the coronavirus – so it’s not a runner. “I’d like to help out in any way that I can, but to actually help out in ICU, it’s just not feasible”, she says.

Many students are in the same boat. They’d love to help, but circumstances dictate otherwise.

Some, including Margaret Ellen Clerkin, have found alternative ways to help. A few weeks ago, Clerkin – a second-year student in graduate medicine in University College Dublin – set up a service to match up student volunteers and pharmacies and make sure patients unable to get to their pharmacy can have their medication brought to their door instead.

Clerkin has already recruited over 800 students and 300 pharmacies to the cause. They’re mostly from healthcare courses, she tells The University Times – “medicine, physiotherapy, pharmacy, and a couple of other courses” – but many from other courses have also signed up. They’ve even got one turbine mechanic she adds, laughing.

We have the opportunity to help in this crisis because staff are so overwhelmed … anything to alleviate that seems like a worthwhile thing to do

Clerkin, who was a qualified pharmacist before returning to college to study medicine, has seen the pressure that pharmacies are under as a result of the crisis – and she’s not the only one who’s noticed. Fionnbar McDermott Long, another UCD medicine student, tells me that “outside of the occurrence of this pandemic, most pharmacies in Dublin, especially, have delivery drivers”.

“However, at the moment, with so many people in isolation, these normal drivers can’t reach everyone.”

It’s no surprise, then, that pharmacies have been so happy to engage with an initiative that Clerkin says has had a “very positive” response. Students, she adds, are “happy to be able to help in such a time, because otherwise they would either be sitting at home; they’d be studying, or they’d be wondering what to do with themselves. So they’re very much happy to be able to help the cause”.

But if volunteering is an eminently worthwhile thing to do, it’s far from risk-free. And while all students putting themselves forward are aware of this fact, Rian Keogh – a third-year medical student on a Trinity-affiliated hospital placement in the Isle of Man for the last four weeks – has lived it.

Just under two weeks ago, Keogh developed symptoms of fatigue and joint pain, and tested positive for the virus despite the lack of a fever or cough. Before this, he and his classmates had requested permission to continue placement, even as their Irish counterparts were sent home from Dublin hospitals.

Keogh, who self-isolated immediately after testing positive, tells me he thinks it was the right thing for his cohort to remain on placement.

“Everybody feels helpless and everybody wants to help out and do their bit and give back”, he says, adding that “we’re in a unique kind of situation where, as medical students and young doctors, we have the opportunity to help in this crisis because staff are so overwhelmed … anything to alleviate that seems like a worthwhile thing to do”.

Students are happy to be able to help in such a time, because otherwise they would either be sitting at home; they’d be wondering what to do with themselves

Keogh has been asymptomatic now for over a week and is looking forward to coming home in the next few days. But, he says, his family are concerned about his return – particularly given the lack of advice from the government when it comes to Irish citizens coming back from abroad. “There’s no information out there and my mum was very concerned”, he tells me.

Keogh, who is better placed than most to address both the risks and benefits of students volunteering in hospitals, has nuanced thoughts on the matter. He warns students: “Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons – that it’s not this kind of heroism or something, that you’re doing it because you’d like to help out and that you think you should help out.”

But for Keogh, volunteering to help combat the pandemic ultimately represents a “wonderful opportunity” for students. And it’s not just that – it’s part of the job. “When we are doctors, we are putting ourselves in contact with things like MRSA, CRE, HIV – things that are killing people every day of the year”, he says.

“As doctors, we will put ourselves at risk anyways, so shying away from all risk would mean never going into hospital. So there’s a balance there as well. It is a risk, but that’s the nature of the job.”

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