Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, medical students from Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences (PNWU) have consistently stepped in to help improve the health and wellness of those around them. According to Mary Lou Shean, Yakima County Emergency Operations Center's Public Health Liaison, PNWU students have volunteered at local drive through COVID-19 testing sites, assembled test kits, agreed to serve on a team that aims to help local business’s open safely, signed on to work on a project to call COVID-positive patients for welfare checks, and more.
One of their latest volunteering efforts — at a clean needle exchange site — is helping to allow medical staff to focus on the urgent work that accompanies an ongoing pandemic in a county suffering from the highest rate of infection on the west coast.
“I decided to volunteer for the needle exchange program because it sounded like a needed and necessary way to support the Yakima Health Department while they tend to the more immediate issues of the heightened pandemic crisis in Yakima,” explained Dannica Ballard, a second-year PNWU medical student who signed up to volunteer for the needle exchange program later this month. “It is a way for me to get involved in an important area of public health within our community and participate in the prevention of other infectious diseases.”
“PNWU students and staff have been absolutely wonderful,” said Shean. “Their enthusiasm and flexibility have been exemplary. They are truly invested in the community that they find themselves in.”
“I thought I'd help out where I could,” explained Sienna Laughton, a fourth-year osteopathic medical student at PNWU. By volunteering to assist with the YHD’s weekly needle exchange program, Laughton hoped she might help to free up some of the department’s staff to continue the arduous work of combatting a pandemic in what had become the west coast’s most infectious community.
On Friday, May 29, Laughton climbed aboard the YHD’s needle exchange RV and headed to a designated area just a few blocks from Yakima’s historic downtown. When the RV arrived, shortly after noon, Laughton was surprised to see people already lined up, waiting to exchange their needles.
Jumping right into the one-for-one exchange, she worked for the next three hours as person after person dropped needles into a red sharps container, in turn receiving an equivalent number of clean needles. “I was surprised by how many people came to exchange needles,“ Laughton said. “We had a steady stream of people the entire time.” By the time she left, she had gained a new perspective on the community she had come to love. In a time when she and her fellow medical students had been pulled from their clinical rotations due to the pandemic, the chance to interact and help people was not only welcomed, but served as an invaluable learning opportunity.
“There were people who seemed to be experiencing homelessness,” Laughton explained, “but there were also people who probably had jobs and homes. People rode up on bikes, walked, drove cars and trucks… People from all walks of life came to exchange needles. It was very rewarding, and provided me an opportunity to see a different part of the Yakima community."
In addition to providing clean needles and other vital supplies, such as wound kits and Narcan (a nasal form of naloxone for the emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose), the YHD’s needle exchange program also helps to keep local parks and other areas clean of needles, and aids in reducing the spread of blood borne diseases in the community. The program is just one of many YHD programs that aims to improve health in Yakima County.
Burdened with the challenges that accompany a pandemic in a county that suffers from the highest rate of infection on the west coast, the needle exchange is also one of many programs at risk of being short-staffed if it were not for willing and able volunteers like Laughton.
“There are so many things happening in this country right now that are dividing us,” she said. “I hope that, by volunteering in Yakima, I can help foster a sense of community and a sense that we are all in this together.”