If it were a typical spring at Brown University, Krissia Rivera Perla ’11, a third-year medical student, would be diving scalpel-first into her trauma surgery elective. Instead, she is volunteering at a Rhode Island office building with members of the National Guard, calling people she may never meet to break life-altering news – “I am calling because you were in contact with someone who has now tested positive for coronavirus.”
Rivera Perla and her cohort at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University have committed to volunteering their time, knowledge, and skills to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Since mid-March, Rivera Perla has worked a COVID-19 hotline, assisted the National Guard with contact tracing, and helped doctors administer COVID-19 tests.
It is already clear to Rivera Perla what this transition means as she prepares to join countless St. Andrew’s alumni who are serving on the frontlines as physicians, caregivers, and counselors today and in a post-pandemic world.
“You can really tell that the people who are leading (the volunteering) are doing it selflessly. We’re not being paid. It’s completely volunteer. There are some people studying for board exams and doing this at the same time.
“It’s a terrible situation, but the fact that this happened, and we were able to do this now, makes me hopeful that the next generation of doctors will be a selfless generation that’s really there to care for patients,” Rivera Perla said.
Only two months ago, Rivera Perla was still seeing patients in a pediatric unit as part of her clinical clerkship. She successfully completed all of her third-year requirements by mid-March, thanks in large part to the timeline of her dual degree program - she is studying for her Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Science in Population Medicine - but other Brown medical students were not so lucky. Most third years were told to evacuate from hospitals just as they were beginning their last clerkship of the year, Rivera Perla said.
Still, even in the final weeks of her clerkship, the transition from business-as-usual to “the new normal” was arguably just as upsetting. For Rivera Perla, this meant seeing her bronchiolitis patients one day to being barred from any contact the next, due to the risk of potential co-infection in pediatric populations.
“We were seeing everything, all the chaos that was starting to ensue: all the last-minute meetings, the hallway meetings, the special trainings for residents, the hospital-wide administrative meetings,” Rivera Perla said. “It was looking pretty grim by the time they pulled us out.”
With clerkships and in-person classes suspended at Brown, Rivera Perla’s classmates decided to look at what their peers at other medical schools were doing and followed their lead by volunteering. Rivera Perla’s first volunteer assignment was to answer calls dialed in to a COVID-19 hotline man - aged by Lifespan Health System in Providence, Rhode Island. She fielded calls from Rhode Island residents and doctors alike, who trusted her for guidance on next steps.
Her second assignment was to assist the National Guard with contact tracing – calling every person who may have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She has listened to essential workers air their frustrations about employers who did not enforce social distancing, and recommended mental health resources to people who were upset and scared by the news.
“You do end up doing a lot of talk therapy with people,” Rivera Perla said. “There’s definitely a lot of anxiety.”
Her third assignment was with Kent Hospital in Warwick, Rhode Island, which opened a COVID-19 testing site for the state’s residents. Medical students were not permitted to test patients, so Rivera Perla and her classmates helped doctors by picking up samples, preparing sample bags, and placing them in ice for transport.
The one aspect of becoming a doctor that she misses the most is patient interaction, which has been entirely restricted in person and, at the call centers, limited to hearing a voice on the other end of the line.
“I felt that, as third-year students at the end of our core clerkship training, my classmates and I had a lot of skills that could be put to use if given the opportunity,” Rivera Perla said.
“It’s pretty hard to get a gauge on how someone is feeling without seeing their body language, and really, a smile can go a long way. “One of my rules when I walk in to see a patient is I never walk in without a smile. I purposely stop beforehand and say to myself, ‘Smile, walk in,’ and go from there,” she said.
Rivera Perla has benefitted from the generosity of Rhode Island residents and chefs, who are delivering food donations to volunteers and doctors.
“I truly appreciate these efforts, and it’s comforting to see people come together in difficult times,” she said.
Rivera Perla, who has spoken to the community in the past about the role financial aid played in her ability to attend St. Andrew’s, is hopeful that later this year, she will be able to provide direct patient care during her neurosurgery sub-internship, where she will be performing the duties of a first year neurosurgery resident.
In the meantime, supporting, comforting, and caring for Rhode Island residents is exactly what the doctor ordered.
“For me, it’s healing to be able to help. I would probably feel worse if I couldn’t help, especially if there is something we can do, even if it is talking to someone on the phone and easing a bit of that anxiety,” she said. “It all makes a difference.”