Volunteering during the pandemic: What doctors need to know


A couple of weeks ago, I posted a silly picture of myself with one N95 mask and asked the folks on Twitter what else I might need. In a matter of a few days, I had filled out a form online for volunteering through the Society of Critical Care Medicine, been assigned to work at a hospital in New York City, and booked a hotel and flight.

Dr. Arghavan Salles at an ICU in Brooklyn, NY. Courtesy Arghavan Salles, MD

Dr. Arghavan Salles wears laminated photo provided to her by a stranger to identify herself to patients.

I was going to volunteer, although I wasn’t sure of exactly what I would be doing. I’m trained as a bariatric surgeon – not obviously suited for critical care, but arguably even less suited for medicine wards.

I undoubtedly would have been less prepared if I hadn’t sought guidance on what to bring with me and generally what to expect. Less than a day after seeking advice, two local women physicians donated N95s, face shields, gowns, bouffants, and coveralls to me. I also received a laminated photo of myself to attach to my gown in the mail from a stranger I met online.

Others suggested I bring goggles, chocolate, protein bars, hand sanitizer, powdered laundry detergent, and alcohol wipes. After running around all over town, I was able find everything but the wipes.

Just as others helped me achieve my goal of volunteering, I hope I can guide those who would like to do similar work by sharing details about my experience and other information I have collected about volunteering.

Below I answer some questions that those considering volunteering might have, including why I went, who I contacted to set this up, who paid for my flight, and what I observed in the hospital.

Motivation and logistics

I am currently serving in a nonclinical role at my institution. So when the pandemic hit the United States, I felt an immense amount of guilt for not being on the front lines caring for patients. I offered my services to local hospitals and registered for the California Health Corps. I live in northern California, which was the first part of the country to shelter in place. Since my home was actually relatively spared, my services weren’t needed.

As the weeks passed, I was slowly getting more and more fit, exercising in my house since there was little else I could do, and the guilt became a cloud gathering over my head.

I decided to volunteer in a place where demands for help were higher – New York. I tried very hard to sign up to volunteer through the state’s registry for health care volunteers, but was unable to do so. Coincidentally, around that same time, I saw on Twitter that Josh Mugele, MD, emergency medicine physician and program director of the emergency medicine residency at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, was on his way to New York. He shared the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s form for volunteering with me, and in less than 48 hours, I was assigned to a hospital in New York City. Five days later I was on a plane from San Francisco to my destination on the opposite side of the country. The airline paid for my flight.

This is not the only path to volunteering. Another volunteer, Sara Pauk, MD, ob.gyn. at the University of Washington, Seattle, found her volunteer role through contacting the New York City Health and Hospitals system directly. Other who have volunteered told me they had contacted specific hospitals or worked with agencies that were placing physicians.


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