SD COVID Sitters: USD medical students lend a helping hand

While they can't be in clinics or hospitals, students offer household help

Screen shot from SD COVID Sitters and Services website

When fourth-year medical student Mona El-Gayar was removed from her in-clinic position in March because of COVID-19, she knew she needed to act.

So El-Gayar started SD COVID Sitters and Services, which provides a number of services to health care providers in need.

“It started when we got pulled off rotations. We just wanted a way to give back and help out, even if it wasn’t medically-related,” El-Gayar said.

How SD COVID Sitters started

SD COVID Sitters arose out of both need and inspiration. A similar group in Minnesota inspired El-Gayar. After receiving guidance from both MN COVID Sitters and DC COVID Sitters, she began to set South Dakota’s own group in motion.

“Mona was really on the ball,” said Claire Porter, a third-year medical student. “I don’t think we were out of clinic two or three days before she was like, ‘All right, let’s get going.’”

El-Gayar attends the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and plans to practice as an OB/GYN. In the meantime, though, she’s practicing babysitting. That’s the most popular service of SD COVID Sitters, which is not sponsored by or affiliated with the University of South Dakota.

“We’re almost at capacity for how many sitters we can provide,” El-Gayar said.

With more than 40 volunteers throughout the state, the organization also offers in-person or online tutoring, household chores and errands. COVID Sitters isn’t just benefiting health care providers, however. It’s also benefiting the students.

Students helping students

Porter said she’s happy to be helping in any way she can during the pandemic.

“The energy among the medical students, I think, was there to help out. This provided a really excellent way to channel that constructively instead of bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t help out clinically,” Porter said.

As the events coordinator, Porter organizes student-led classes on well-being, baking, crafting and exercise, to name just a few.

Porter also keeps the community up to date on local volunteer opportunities. This includes drive-thru food banks, which they participate in often with the help of the United Way.

On the pandemic sidelines

El-Gayar and Porter love lending a hand to local health care providers. However, being on the sidelines during a pandemic is frustrating for the medical students.

“It’s a confusing time because we are medically trained,” El-Gayar said. “I know, especially for our graduating class of 2020, it was very difficult for them to stand by because they’re almost doctors. But there’s no real capacity for them to help out at this point. For me, being able to do this was a way to help out within my capacity.”

Porter feels the same frustration but understands the need to protect patients.

“I felt solid about the decision to be out of clinic because this is a way we’re already engaging in medical care by protecting our patients, even if it means staying away,” Porter said.

USD’s students, like El-Gayar and Porter, have been continuing their medical courses online and find their plates full.

“I’d say that’s pretty consistent with my classmates,” Porter said. “They’re a group of people who are very bad at not being busy.”

El-Gayar, Porter and the rest of the SD COVID Sitters team will continue to help out health care providers until they can continue on their paths to becoming providers themselves.

El-Gayar believes this will be a temporary organization that most likely will end after medical students are allowed back into clinic.

“We’re excited to get back one day,” Porter said.

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Posted In Community, Coronavirus, Parenting

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