As healthcare workers throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond continue battling the COVID-19 pandemic, a collection of PNWU student volunteers have stepped up to provide crucial support. Their service has proven to be a vital component in allowing medical staff to focus on the urgent work that accompanies an ongoing pandemic.
“As a medical student who has gained knowledge and experience from learning and serving in this community, I just wanted to give back,” explained second-year PNWU osteopathic medical student (OMS) Danzhu Zhao, reflecting on her volunteer work at one of the Yakima Health District’s (YHD’s) COVID-19 mobile testing sites.
Since the start of the pandemic, PNWU student doctors like Zhao have consistently committed to doing all they can to improve the health and wellness of their communities. Despite their already overwhelming medical school schedules, PNWU students have volunteered over 1,000 hours in Yakima County alone since April.
“I am very fortunate to be in good health during this time,” Zhao explained when asked about her decision to volunteer. “I know that is not the case for so many people around the world, and I wanted to help my community in any way I could.” In her role at the testing site, Zhao helped to screen patients, discussing their symptoms and providing information and resources for those who were concerned for their health.
“It was eye-opening to see how many people were coming in with symptoms and were fearful for themselves and their loved ones,” said Zhao. “Being able to provide comfort and the testing that they needed was incredibly rewarding.”
Like Zhao, third-year medical student Carrie Tackett also jumped on the opportunity to give back to her community. With board studying finally behind her, she too volunteered to help at a Yakima-based mobile testing site.
“I decided to volunteer because I feel I have been given a lot throughout my education, and just life in general,” said Tackett. “I think it is important to give some of that back when you can.”
Working in the blistering heat of the Yakima Valley sun, Tackett was moved by the consistently grateful reactions of the patients she met. “People kept thanking me profusely for what we were doing, but all I could think was: ‘I’m not working as hard as the testers.’ I was so impressed by the workers around me, who were all wearing head-to-toe PPE,” she said. “It was a great morning, and very well put together and smooth operation.”
Stepping in to also provide relief to the healthcare community she one day plans to join, fourth-year PNWU medical student Sienna Laughton signed on to assist with the YHD’s weekly needle exchange program.
“I thought I'd help out where I could,” said Laughton. In a time when she and her fellow medical students had been pulled from their clinical rotations due to the pandemic, Laughton hoped her efforts would not only free up some of the district’s staff, but also provide her with a chance to truly connect with and help people.
After climbing aboard the YHD’s needle exchange RV, Laughton headed to a designated area just a few blocks from Yakima’s historic downtown. When the RV arrived, shortly after noon, she 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 her beloved community.
“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.
“There is no greater time than this to serve, love, and have compassion for those around us,” said Zhao, still buzzing from her opportunity to have a considerable impact on the health of her community. As she and her fellow PNWU health sciences students continue training to become healthcare leaders throughout the Pacific Northwest, their ongoing efforts serve as undeniable proof of the value of the compassion and commitment that shape the university’s mission and vision.
“PNWU students and staff have been absolutely wonderful,” said Mary Lou Shean, Yakima County Emergency Operations Center's Public Health Liaison. “Their enthusiasm and flexibility have been exemplary. They are truly invested in the community that they find themselves in.”