Volunteering during the pandemic: What doctors need to know



The PPE Dr. Arghavan Salles packed for her trip Courtesy Arghavan Salles. MD

The PPE Dr. Arghavan Salles brought with her to volunteer in New York City

The Brooklyn hospital where I volunteered provided me with two sets of scrubs and two N95s. Gowns were variably available on our unit, and there was no eye protection. As a colleague of mine, Ben Daxon, MD, anesthesia and critical care physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., had suggested, anyone volunteering in this context should bring personal protective equipment (PPE) – That includes gowns, bouffants/scrub caps, eye protection, masks, and scrubs.

The “COVID corner”

Once I arrived in New York, I did not feel particularly safe in my hotel, so I moved to another the next day. Then I had to sort out how to keep the whole room from being contaminated. I created a “COVID corner” right by the door where I kept almost everything that had been outside the door.

Every time I walked in the door, I immediately took off my shoes and left them in that corner. I could not find alcohol wipes, even after looking around in the city, so I relied on time to kill the virus, which I presumed was on everything that came from outside.

Brooklyn NY during the pandemic Courtesy Arghavan Salles, MD

The view from Dr. Arghavan Salles' hotel room in Brooklyn

Groceries stayed by the door for 48-72 hours if possible. After that, I would move them to the “clean” parts of the room. I wore the same outfit to and from the hospital everyday, putting it on right before I left and taking it off immediately after walking into the room (and then proceeding directly to the shower). Those clothes – “my COVID outfit” – lived in the COVID corner. Anything else I wore, including exercise clothes and underwear, got washed right after I wore it.

At the hospital, I would change into scrubs and leave my COVID outfit in a plastic bag inside my handbag. Note: I fully accepted that my handbag was now a COVID handbag. I kept a pair of clogs in the hospital for daily wear. Without alcohol wipes, my room did not feel clean. But I did start to become at peace with my system, even though it was inferior to the system I use in my own home.

Meal time

In addition to bringing snacks from home, I gathered some meal items at a grocery store during my first day in New York. These included water, yogurt, a few protein drinks, fruit, and some mini chocolate croissants. It’s a pandemic – chocolate is encouraged, right?

Neither any of the volunteers I knew nor I had access to a kitchen, so this was about the best I could do.

My first week I worked nights and ate sporadically. A couple of days I bought bagel sandwiches on the way back to the hotel in the morning. Other times, I would eat yogurt or a protein bar.

I had trouble sleeping, so I would wake up early and either do yoga in my room or go for a run in a nearby park. Usually I didn’t plan well enough to eat before I went into the hospital, so I would take yogurt, some fruit, and a croissant with me as I headed out. It was hard eating on the run with a mask on my face.

When I switched to working days, I actually ordered proper dinners from local Thai, Mexican, and Indian restaurants. I paid around $20 a meal.

One night I even had dinner with a coworker who was staying at a hotel close to mine – what a luxury! Prior to all this I had been sheltering in place alone for weeks, so in that sense, this experience was a delight. I interacted with other people, in person, every day!

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