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Idled help the isolated: Med students aid homebound seniors

Posted at 7:05 PM, May 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-10 12:49:58-04

CINCINNATI (AP) — Aspiring doctors in Cincinnati whose studies were interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak have morphed their mission into taking care of people who are especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s dangers.

University of Cincinnati medical students started a “COVID-19 match” program modeled on one that began in Louisville, Kentucky, and is also being replicated around the country.

Volunteers are assigned someone who is 60 years or older or who has health problems that make it particularly dangerous to risk exposure by leaving home. The volunteers do grocery shopping, pick up prescriptions or perform other errands — or just send cards and check in.

Annette Rybicki, 88, who lives with her son, Dr. Frank Rybicki, is among the early users.

Rybicki is vice chairman for operations of the radiology department for the UC medical school, which is part of the UC Health System.

His mother has dementia and other illnesses, he said, and caring for her while working from home doesn’t leave much time for grocery shopping.

“It’s no small feat to get food now,” Rybicki said.

His mother drew as her match a neurology student who was soon doing their food shopping, armed with cellphone pictures Rybicki sent of his mother’s favorite veggie burgers and other delights, including pasta and chocolate.

“She’s been phenomenal,” Rybicki said. “And it gives me time to try to help save people’s lives, so it’s huge.”

The Cincinnati-area match program began in late March after two students, whose clinical rotations set for this spring were postponed because of the virus, started texting each other.

Cassandra Schoberg, a psychiatry student who lives nearby in Covington, Kentucky, told Tommy Daley, a pediatrics student from Springboro, Ohio, that a bright side was being able to help her homebound grandmother.

Both immediately realized there must be many older people who needed help, Daley said. Schoberg told him about a Louisville program she had heard about.

“Tommy said, ‘We can totally pull this off,’” she recounted.

A friend created a website, and Daley and Schoberg started lining up contact information for those in need from churches and put out a call for volunteers.

They quickly got 40 medical students, and the number is growing with the participation of nonmedical students and friends of students from UC and Northern Kentucky University, across the Ohio River.

The program now serves around 120 clients, and the operators plan to offer current services at least through May.

In Louisville, Erin Hinson couldn’t be happier to see her program adopted elsewhere. Versions are up and running in cities across the country, she said. She now has help managing it from University of Louisville students and alumni.

Hinson, 35, a former legislative assistant for the Louisville Metro Council, is marooned at home during the outbreak because of diabetes and asthma.

“I’m stuck in my house, and I really want to help my community,” she said.

She thought about similarly homebound people who don’t have a spouse, friends or relatives nearby to help them out.

She developed her plan in mid-March to follow Jesus Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor” by using technology, she said. She started with a do-it-yourself site before local ad agency Red Tag jumped in to build her a sophisticated, information-loaded site.

Within four weeks, her program had connected volunteers with more than 200 people at home, in one-to-one matches of volunteers who live as close as possible to the clients. They get groceries, medications, pick up food boxes from food banks, run other errands, or simply phone to chat or leave encouraging messages in a mailbox.

“The real heroes are the people who are volunteering, loving their neighbors one person at a time,” Hinson said.

In Cincinnati, Rybicki said that he previously ordered food for delivery from restaurants and grocery stores, but that the personalized, one-to-one approach works better to fulfill his mother’s wishes.

Delivery orders are prone to delays and substitutions, while the volunteers have the latitude to focus on one client.

“If you’re old and you have dementia also, it’s hard to understand why you can’t have the food that you usually have,” Rybicki said. “This is a terrific use of the resources that the medical students have.”