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Baylor College of Medicine

CovidSitters Episode 1: How to Create a Student-Run Volunteer Organization

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CovidSitters Episode 1 | Transcript

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Brandon: And we are here. This is one of your hosts Brandon Garcia. I’m joined today with our guest host Anoosha Moturu.

Anoosha Moturu: Hey guys

Brandon: As well as two of the founders of HTX CovidSitters. We have Madhushree Zope and Aanchal Thadani. How are you guys today

Aanchal: Great how are you?

Brandon: Doing great as good as one can be stuck in a closet. So today we're going to be talking about this wonderful organization you guys have started here helping out, from what I understand, health care professionals and all kinds of people throughout the Houston community. Is that correct?

Aanchal: Yeah, we are looking to serve every person who works in a clinic or hospital setting and some of our branches also go beyond that.

Brandon: That's so awesome. I just can't explain how excited I am to hear you guys talk about this. I think it's an amazing thing that y'all are doing. But before we get into that I was wondering if everyone would be able to give an opportunity to maybe introduce themselves, talk a little bit about maybe their background, and what inspired y'all to get involved in this way. So let's go ahead and start with Anoosha.

Anoosha: Yeah hey guys my name is Anoosha I'm a third year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine and yeah I'm here to help kind of facilitate our understanding of this awesome organization today.

Brandon: Thank you and Madhushree.

Madhushree: Hi this is Madhushree, I'm also a third year medical student at Baylor so Anoosha is one of my wonderful classmates and she's also part of our CovidSitters' admin team. I initially heard about CovidSitters through Minnesota which is kind of how all of this started, but I guess we'll get into that a little bit later

Brandon: Okay and Aanchal?

Aanchal: Hey I'm Aanchal. I'm a first year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, so I'm very grateful to have wonderful third-years around me to help Madhushree and me through this process. I originally started it with the help of Madhushree and my team. I think that mostly because we were looking for a way to really lend a hand with all that's going on, but I'm sure we'll get into more of that I think as we move forward.

Brandon: Yeah absolutely and again thank you guys for taking the time to sit down and chat with us today. I guess without further ado Anoosha take it away let's see what they've got to say 

Anoosha: Yeah for sure, so today we're going to kind of focus on how you even kind of started this awesome community service initiative. So we’ll kind of start with some info about that. So how did you come up with this idea to start CovidSitters in the first place?

Madhushre: So we initially started off as just an excel sheet which Aanchal started. I think she can talk a little bit more about how she got the idea to start the spreadsheet, and we'll go from there.

Aanchal: Honestly, it was through listening to, well I guess watching, people talk on Twitter - mostly our teachers and our professors at Baylor - speaking about some of the challenges that they were facing while having to work so hard during this this particular and very strange time that we're in, and I was also watching some peers from around the country lend a hand in various ways. And this excel sheet was simply a way of perhaps gathering resources so that residents and doctors could look to it and perhaps reach out to students that way. Yeah it was supposed to be something that was very simple and somewhat quick.

Anoosha: That's awesome! So this Excel spreadsheet, is that how you kind of went about reaching out to volunteers from Baylor College of Medicine? And were there any other schools or places that you reached out to for volunteers?

Aanchal: In its very early stages it was just simply something that was sent out through groupMes and reached our peers that way. And it was quite popular in its first very few days a lot of our classmates and our peers were excited to join. But it was somewhat limited to Baylor because it was quite ad hoc. It was more ad hoc than what we have and nothing was really streamlined.

Madhushree: Yeah and I think going off of that, there is always this initial sentiment of at least the medical student community within Baylor wanting to help out our mentors and faculty who were working very hard on the frontlines of this pandemic which is kind of where the idea for the spreadsheet came along. And then I wanted to kind of generalize this sentiment that students were having all across the country towards the Greater Houston community which is why we kind of upgraded our platform to the website that we have today.

Brandon: That's awesome! Hey, quick question I forgot we should ask this but what do you guys actually do? I know it's called CovidSitters, do you do babysitting? What is it that y'all do?

Aanchal: Well we can walk through the evolution!

Brandon: Oh wow this evolved over time? Okay so would you start with?

Madhushree: So initially it was just household support which included everything from child care services to pet Sitting and errands like pharmacy runs, grocery runs, meal runs things like that and I think that's initially what the spreadsheet was based off of as well. Is that right Aanchal?

Aanchal: Yeah yeah, so it was intended just to be a place where providers could come and look for help for mostly their children was with the initial thought that I had.

Brandon: Mm-hmm and what what did it involve?

Madhushree: Since that initial thought, we've had a lot of classmates and colleagues from institutions across the Texas Medical Center want to join in on the effort and each of them have brought their own ideas as to how to grow our organization to address different needs within the Houston community. So I guess specifically speaking we've added our K through 12 online tutoring branch which Anoosha actually co-founded. She's kind of been the lead for that service arm and she's done a phenomenal job of kind of bringing together the K through 12 the community throughout Houston and trying to help them with the online transition to school that they're seeing. And then a third branch that we recently started with another classmate through Baylor College of Medicine was the E-Cards for Seniors Program. And this one was mainly born out of the concern that senior citizens who are currently living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes have been increasingly impacted by the quarantine and social distancing as they can't have as many volunteers in like contacts with the outside world as they're normally used to. So one of our wonderful classmates decided to start sending e-cards to residents living throughout the nursing homes of Houston. So that's also something that's taken off in recent days.

Brandon: Wow. 

Anoosha: Sure, and I think we'll probably definitely hear more about that in our next episode as well. So thank you for that awesome overview, but stay tuned for more details!

Brandon: Oh absolutely. Wow, I was excited before, but now I'm just like “this is awesome.” I mean honestly, hats off to you guys for this amazing work they all started and it's branched out into something huge and amazing

Madhushree: Yeah we didn't anticipate that it was going to be so interdisciplinary and involved, but it's really been humbling to see everyone come together with the same mission in mind.

Anoosha: Awesome so let's jump into figuring out like how you reached out to other volunteers from different schools and how having volunteers from different schools kind of helped you spread the initiative even further.

Madhushree: So when I was initially forming the I guess admin team for our group I reached out to Aanchal because she was the person who had set up the spreadsheet and we kind of collaborated from there. And I guess being at an MS3, I had a lot of contacts throughout between preclinical and clinical years and various other organizations that I’ve been involved in. So I had networks with the other schools in the area. And going into it the idea of course was to kind of spread this throughout the city of Houston, and with that in mind, we both recognized the need for a diverse volunteer base and then based off of that we started recruiting PA students into our admin team, as well as dental students, and then students from the School of Public Health at UT. So each of them kind of brought their own networks into this which is how we were able to quickly spread the word between all these different communities.

Aanchal: And it was really quite special to see how excited everybody was to be involved and to contribute to this particular project and they sort of brought their own energy, and their own ideas to what we were doing. So it really just felt like the whole of our community was coming together to help make this happen.

Brandon: Yeah, what other institutions are involved? Like what is the scope of this when you say that we've got a widespread community help?

Aanchal: So in terms of a volunteer base it is quite wide. I mean everything from UH law school, to McGovern students, to Rice Ph.D. students, we in fact also have a few a few volunteers who actually don't go to school in Houston, but I'd imagine are from the area and have returned because of the situation that we are now facing, and who are looking to volunteer in their home communities. And that is also similarly special to see 

Brandon: Wow 

Anoosha: That's awesome. So you guys did a lot of work to spread the word and gather volunteers from all over the Houston area. That's so cool to hear. How did you guys go about spreading the word to those in need?

Aanchal: This is where I think that social media and some of our established networks as classes and as schools came in hand. So once we were able to build an admin team that was that was fairly diverse and lucky enough to have some upperclassmen, Madhushree helping me and helping us out and had their own contacts, that we were able to by social media and word-of-mouth and through email really just have it be dispersed. And also I think what helped was when people heard about what we were doing, they were very excited and supportive and they did their bit to help us spread the word as well, so it was sort of this - there's a little bit of a wildfire effect through the community that we're trying to serve.

Madhushree: Yeah and to complement what Aanchal was saying, a lot of it was also based off of just cold emailing admin and faculty and residents in the different hospitals and health care systems throughout Houston. They were just very receptive to our platform and a lot of them were like yeah we'll send this to you know our higher-ups and we'll put it in our newsletters and disseminate it to the entire hospital system. So that was very kind of them to do and very special for us to be a part of 

Aanchal: And then that sort of same line, I think that we were lucky enough to receive some local media attention very early on, fairly early on in our in our endeavors, and so I think that was also quite instrumental in helping us reach some the wider community area in Houston.

Brandon: Yeah, I think Anoosha said something like you guys have been on TV. You've interviewed with like three or four different TV stations. Is that true? 

Madhushree: Yeah, we have been on local and national news outlets at this point and it's just been very interesting to see how our platform has spread kind of outside of the the borders of Houston and Anoosha can talk a little bit more about this in the next episode, but we're definitely also seeing needs from different states which we're trying to work on addressing at the moment. So the media has definitely been helpful in terms of making people aware that we're out here and you know trying to help.

Brandon: Right and y'all obviously reached the with being on the Resonance podcast. So forget CNN the Resonance is where it's at. Just kidding I don't know. I mean wow, that is, to see this blow up in like - how long have you all been doing this? Because I think I remember seeing an excel file like March maybe?

Aanchal:  Yeah, so the excel file went up about the first or second week of March, I would say between the first and second week of March, and then it wasn't until March 23 that we were able to get the website up and so it's been, I think - I'm trying to do math in my head right now - two-ish or three-ish month.

Brandon: And how many volunteers do you have? 

Madhushree: So right now, we're working with upwards of one-hundred and eighty volunteers, which is pretty amazing. 

Brandon: Yeah, that is fantastic. Yeah, I mean I've worked with nonprofits and stuff in the past. That was a big part of my undergrad, and to see this kind of growth in this short of time is absolutely phenomenal and I think that's just like has to do with the fact that this is: one, an amazing need that you guys have found a fill; and two, just the you've found tons of people that are willing to step forth to take the time to help out. This is just mind-boggling how awesome it is. 

Aanchal:  For sure, and it's also a testament to the community that we are part of because I think it's fair to say that it started off as me and Madhushree. But right now we have a large team of admin staff, and an even larger team of volunteers, and everyone really is here doing their bit, and is excited to do their bit, and that really does say something.

Anoosha: That's awesome, guys. It's super inspiring to hear how much success the program has had, and how you guys have really helped it kind of blossom and grow. But I'm sure it was not easy at all. Can you guys talk to just some of the challenges involved in getting this program set up and running?

Madhushree: Yeah, I think one of the main challenges early on was figuring out how to go from an Excel spreadsheet to a full-fledged website platform. In hindsight, it's pretty amazing that we were able to make that turnaround happen.

Aanchal:  In a weekend. 

Madhushree: Yeah, it was basically a weekend where we kind of pulled everything together, got the team together and had everyone like ready to go in terms of assigning volunteers to their shifts. So that was one of the earlier challenges - just like learning how to navigate the technical side of things and the admin side of things, but once that had been up and going it kind of flowed pretty fluidly and we've kind of just changed as the situation requires. 

Aanchal: I think just to add to what Madhuri was saying, that there were some particular challenges with making this a little bit more established and streamlined than simply a Google spreadsheet. Part of that was thinking about some of those potential legal implications and working with some fantastic peers and mentors at Baylor who helped us navigate that space, as well and make sure that we were doing the best that we could to ensure that our program, and our volunteers, and our families were safe. And working through some of those thought exercises as we move forward.

Madhushree: Yeah, and sorry tacking on to that as well - Well, I think pretty early on after we had launched our website on March 23, I believe, the stay at home order went out for Houston. We were kind of frantically in talks with admin and mentors from different institutions to figure out what that meant for volunteers and our families that needed our volunteers. But everyone was very supportive, very helpful and helped us navigate the legalese and behind the scenes to make sure that everyone could volunteer without getting in trouble, so to speak.

Anoosha: That's awesome. Can you guys talk a little bit about, so during this time we've had kind of like constantly changing and updating kind of guidelines and recommendations that we should all follow as a community. Has that affected the volunteering at all? And if it has, how did you guys kind of adapt to those changes?

Madhushree: So I think the major changes that we've seen, at least from a Houston perspective, aside from the stay at home order which was put into effect pretty early on, they've been more focused like travel restrictions and we kind of addressed that and are in the contracts that we provide for our volunteers, the informal contracts as well as the forms that are on our website in terms of the specifications and guidelines as to where they can have traveled and what the quarantine time should be like if they are planning on volunteering after travel. So that's something that we kind of have to stay on top of with the news and the Health Department advisories as they come out. So that's I guess going off of that also a lot of our teammates that have come on to the admin team since the beginning of this initiative have also brought remote volunteering opportunities with them, which has also been like another way of addressing this whole quarantine and social distancing situation.

Brandon: So on the topic, you mentioned the fact that there's an issue like a concern about quarantine yourselves and how that might impact like returning to school with y'all going back to clinics here in the next couple weeks. How has that impacted you guys? Have you had to dial back some of your more like in-person style stuff or like what what's going on in that sense?

Aanchal: So we had spoken to again some admin and mentors at Baylor and some other institutions regarding how best to move forward with that. Because we did have to keep in mind one, the safety of our volunteers the safety of our family, but also just making sure that we were being responsible with how we were moving forward, and also making sure that we don't abruptly take away any needed help from the people that we were serving. But we were making sure to give them enough time to make adjustments and sort of work their schedules out. Speaking with some admin at Baylor, we were able to understand that we should be careful with new assignments because of the time constraints, but also that if our volunteers, and we hope that you know according to the contract in they must be taking care of their social distancing and adhering to proper guidelines outside of their volunteer shift, that they should be okay with returning back to clinics on time while keeping both them and our family safe. However, now sort of crunch time. It's May 17 and a lot of  our volunteer base is returning back to school and clinics in less than ten days and so sort of now is when we're really starting to work with our families and decide sort of how to move forward. One of the thoughts right now is perhaps reaching out to current families and asking them if they would be okay with having undergraduate students volunteer with them and help them with their needs. Because right now our volunteer base is made almost entirely of graduate students, but if they do continue to have needs we do want to make sure that we do whatever we can to make you know to help them with what they need. So right now it's about working with our current families and seeing sort of where they stand and what their needs are, and how we can both keep them safe and meet those needs.

Anoosha: Sounds like a lot of really great communication, and you know constantly adapting to change - bending like the reed. 

Madhushree: That seems to be the name of the game for everything these days.

Anoosha: Yeah

Brandon: If you had to pick one thing, what would you say was the most significant challenge of putting this all together? 

Madhushree: Just one thing?

Brandon: We could go into other things. But I just wanted to see what is, like if you were to think about it - what was the most significant thing? Because I know for starting the podcast, the biggest thing for us was like one, figuring out the right channels and two, finding a way to make the model sustainable. Because, I imagine the first thing they said to us was like - what are you gonna do when you get busy? Because that's the life of a medical student and Eric and I both are kinda like, “duh we'll figure that out.” 

Madhushree: I think within the first week or two, one of the main concerns that I kept having and that kind of honestly me up at night was, you know are we like are we doing right by our volunteers? Are we doing right by our families? Are we keeping everyone safe and making sure that we're not like contributing to the spread of this pandemic? I think a lot of addressing those concerns has been kind of just going back and forth between healthcare faculty as well as healthcare departments in the area and just figuring out like the safest most responsible way to continue to provide our services, which really are essential, in the sense that you know health care workers need family support when they're being called on in the hospitals to such an extent over the course of like these past two or three months. So I think that was one of my major worries going into this and kind of has been throughout but it's been getting better I guess. 

Brandon: What about you, Aanchal?

Aanchal: I fully agree with Missouri. I think that we have had, between her and I, many conversations about that one particular topic and making sure that we are being responsible as we move forward. I think that like with any organization and any initiative we also face some troubles with basic troubleshooting and how to make sure that we're able to how quick turnarounds and meet our familys’ needs in time. You know health care worker schedules are constantly changing. Medical students and other graduate students are busy. So there have definitely been many times where we have had hours of turnaround between when we have a request and when we need people's requests filles. I think that the support for that comes from having a fantastic admin team who have really just been on call and been excited to help with any of these situations that come up. I think that's just sort of obstacle just stuff that we face on the regular and we've just gotten better and better and more efficient at handling them as time has passed. 

Brandon: Awesome. Now on the flip side, what do you guys think would be the single best part of this experience for each of you?

Aanchal: The best part for me is getting to know and getting to work with such amazing peers across the medical field. Just so you and our listeners know that I have met Madhuri once in person for a grand total of maybe a half hour. I have never met anybody else on our admin team and so these are all brand new friends that I have gotten to make over this really difficult time and gotten to work with in a really intimate space and build something that we can all really be proud of. And just extending that to our greater volunteer base I know for a fact that the connections and the bonds that they build with their mentors as they work with them in their homes, and with their peers as they work together to fill the needs of their mentors are definitely going to be quite prominent as they move forward in their educational career. So I think that the relationship that we've been able to build as we sort of model this from ground up have been really quite special. 

Madhushree:  Yeah and I think I'm speaking as an MS3, so just for a little bit of context when I was a first-year medical student in the fall semester, it was actually when Harvey happened and we experienced some shutdowns and disruptions within our medical curriculum because of all the aftermath of the hurricane. So I think back then thinking of like what the medical students role was in a community response, it was very much me kind of just following leadership from our upperclassmen and our faculty at the time. And now as an MS 3 it's been nice to see it's been nice to see the growth of my class between Harvey and now. I think going off of that it's just been very amazing and phenomenal to see how all of my classmates have come together with such passion and such initiative to start new branches with CovidSitters, and they kind of really just take the lead and go off on their own. It's just been a very humbling growth journey amongst peers. 

Anoosha: That's awesome, Madhushree. Yeah I haven't thought about that. Framing it with when we entered Medical School during the time of Harvey, it was like right as we'd started, to now. You kind of hit the nail on the head. That's awesome. I'm glad you set it in that way.

Madhushree: Yeah, and I'm sure you probably can attest to this in some degree but it's been really nice to see ourselves grow as like medical professionals, and kind of increase our capacity in giving back and contributing to the Houston community.

Branson: Yeah, I just I just don't echo and say that this is absolutely fantastic and I am so glad that y'all set this up and gave so many people the opportunity to get out and serve. I think that's one of the beautiful things about this situation we're in, which is mind you very terrible. I don't know if there's anyone on the planet that maybe feels like they like this, I don't know, I for sure don't. But it's awesome to be able to see that there's some good coming out of being stuck at  home having to deal with this awful pandemic and having literally everything sidelined. So thank you guys so much for taking the time to start this program and to help people out. And then also thank you for taking the time to come talk with us. 

Aanchal: Thank you for having us. 

Madhushree: Thank you for being part of our community, helping us spread the word. 

Anoosha: Yeah is there any like one message or several messages even that you guys want to share with the Resonance podcast audience?

Madhushree: I guess just as like good note to end on I just really want to say like a true heartfelt thank you to really everyone involved with CovidSitters - everyone from the admin team, all the volunteers who really are the backbone of our organization, and all of the health care workers who have willingly let us enter their homes and families and have established meaningful connections with us. 

Aanchal: And all the faculty that helped us get started and move forward.

Madhushree: Definitely. 

Brandon: Well, awesome guys. Thank you so much for being here today.

Aanchal: Thank you. 

[Music]