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UTHSC med students Austin O'Connor and Theresa Borcky

Third-year medical student Sarah Steele said it has been an honor to be one of roughly four dozen medical students from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center who have staffed a drive-through testing site for COVID-19 at the Mid-South Fairgrounds since it opened in mid-March.

“As students, we feel so honored to have the opportunity to step up and serve the community,” she said. “While these times are scary and filled with uncertainty, we are compelled to serve the people and to continue to be present every day going forward, both to test and treat every Memphian.”

UTHSC’s College of Medicine, working with the Shelby County Health Department and the City of Memphis, opened the drive-thru testing site at Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds March 20. The site is staffed primarily by UTHSC medical students under the supervision of physician faculty. College of Nursing students, as well as some dental students, are also volunteering at the site, which is testing approximately 150 people a day by appointment.

David Schwartz, M.D., the medical director of the site, said the medical students “came together as Avengers,” referencing the superheroes of comic books and movies.

“Our medical students have been the beating heart of our testing center,” he said. Dr. Schwartz, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and director of the Center for Health Equity in the Department of Radiation Oncology in the College of Medicine, was tasked with establishing and running the site.

“They displayed nothing less than complete selflessness, professionalism, kindness, intelligence, and dedication at every moment,” he said. “After looking at other sites across the country, it is clear we are a model program setting the highest standard. It is all because of our students. I have been left humbled and in awe.”

Forty-eight student volunteers are scheduled in shifts at the site each day to take nasopharyngeal samples to test for the virus. Six physicians are scheduled to volunteer each day as well and generally supervise the student volunteers. Ten students volunteer at a call center to schedule appointments.

“This takes a cast of hundreds —medical/nursing/PA (Physician Assistant) students, University Clinical Health staff, UTHSC pathology and virology staff, City of Memphis staff, and so many others,” Dr. Schwartz said.

Medical student Austin O’Connor, class of 2021, said it has been a great opportunity to help organize this testing for the city. “On March 17, all medical students were pulled from our clinical rotations across the country to help decrease the spread of COVID,” he said. “Many of us were looking for other ways to get involved and help our community during this time. The next day, Andrew McBride, Hannah Allen, Chloe Hundman, Lydia Makepeace, and myself (all medical students) were pulled in by Dr. Schwartz to help establish and organize this testing initiative. When I was called about helping to organize UTHSC’s COVID testing site, I was eager to get involved. I viewed this opportunity as a great way to put my training to good use during this time and a great opportunity to give back to the Memphis community.”

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Suzanne Moyer, a doctor of nursing student at UTHSC

Within a week, the site was up and running. “None of this would be possible without the doctors who have guided us, the medical students who have volunteered their time, or the support of UTHSC, University Clinical Health, the City of Memphis, and the Memphis community as a whole,” O’Connor said. “I’m honored to be a part of this team and am extremely proud of what we have been able to build. Our medical students have stepped up in a major way to help provide this testing for our community. By primarily staffing this testing site with medical students, we are able to free up most of the doctors to focus their time and effort in the hospital and in their clinics.”

O’Connor said he and the other student organizers have worked almost every day since getting the site established. Student volunteers can sign up for shifts of four to six hours, depending on the position, throughout the day.

“All of us are happy to be able to help,” he said. “Also, it has been amazing to see the way that the Memphis community has supported us. We have had several restaurants donate food for our volunteers and some of the local nail salons donated their face masks and gloves to us, just to name a few examples.”

Scott Strome, M.D., executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, cannot contain his pride in the student body across all years in the college. First-year students, he said, are bringing food to the underserved.

“The students wanted to give back in this crisis,” he said. “It wasn’t something with the school saying, ‘we want you to do this.’ They said they want to help. It was amazing.”

The dean said students have thanked him for giving them this opportunity. He believes their participation has helped them learn vital lessons about their profession. “We look at everything as a teachable moment,” Dr. Strome said. “We want our students to really have an opportunity to learn, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime situation.”

The dean said the community response has been humbling. “Our community so appreciates them. I can’t tell you how many people have called and said, ‘your medical students are amazing,’ ” he said. “I am so proud of our medical students and how they have stepped up. They are out there for the community, and we’re so appreciative. It gives me a lot of confidence in the future of medicine.”

O’Connor and his fellow students, will continue to keep their focus on the community. “This pandemic has been a huge stressor for everyone, and we see and interact with that reality each day,” he said. “My hope is that by helping to provide this testing to the Memphis community, we are able to alleviate some of that stress for our patients.”

Peggy Reisser is the communications manager at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

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