Mikayla Johnson. left, M1, and Danielle Block, M3, both of whom are enrolled in the Disaster Management Course for students, help assemble COVID-19 test kits May 1 at the Medical Center.
Mikayla Johnson. left, M1, and Danielle Block, M3, both of whom are enrolled in the Disaster Management Course for students, help assemble COVID-19 test kits May 1 at the Medical Center.
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Medical Center credits students’ COVID-19 response – in due course

Published on Monday, May 4, 2020

By: Gary Pettus,

As Ambika Srivastava helped administer a COVID-19 swab test at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds recently, she was struck by the assortment of people seated behind a long line of steering wheels.

“It was everyone, from young to old, from people in nicer cars to those driving cars I thought we would have to push off the fairgrounds,” said Srivastava of Meridian, a fourth-year dental student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Other than their health worries, though, they had a common bond, she said: Gratitude. “They all said, ‘Thank you.’ I even heard, “Thank you for your service’ – words I had never heard spoken to anyone other than people in the military.”

Fourth-year dental student and COVID-19 student response team leader Ambika Srivastava dons full PPE while at the fairgrounds testing site last week.
Ambika Srivastava, D4 and COVID-19 student response team leader, dons full PPE while at the fairgrounds testing site last week.

Soon enough, UMMC was thanking the students for their service as well, in a way whose reach and timeliness may only be possible at an academic medical center: by offering them classroom credit for hours they had already piled up as volunteers in the anti-pandemic campaign.

The upshot is the Disaster Management Course for students, an effort that “highlights the students’ energy, Dr. LouAnn Woodward’s thoughtful leadership and the ability of our faculty to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” said Dr. Ralph Didlake, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer.

It was Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, who wanted to know if this could be done after she learned what the students had done.

Many of these students, from various campus schools, had carried out swab testing for the public and UMMC employees at the fairgrounds in Jackson; made swabs themselves; collected and constructed protective masks; staffed telehealth operations; volunteered at Mississippi MED-COM, the statewide emergency communications clearinghouse; handled the infection prevention hotline; and helped set up the acute respiratory field clinic in Parking Garage B.

So Didlake took Woodward’s question to his “go-to” person for performing innovative feats of curriculum magic: Dr. Elizabeth Franklin.

Portrait of Dr. Elizabeth Franklin

“This is one of those thousands of situations where we had to do something different because of this pandemic,” said Franklin, associate professor in the Doctor of Health Administration Program in the School of Health Related Professions, “and we consider it an honor to work on it.

“Dr. Didlake called me on a Thursday around 4 p.m. and asked me if we could have a course by the first part of the following week. I don’t know much about best practices for disaster management, but I know someone who does.”

In other words, the buck did not stop there; in a flurry of focused cooperation, it was passed from hand to hand, and back, and Dr. Cynthia Casey’s grasp was one of the firmest.

Franklin knew that Casey, associate professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences in SHRP, had taught a disaster management course elsewhere. Casey, who rose to the role of content expert, decided to exploit a rich lode of information that is easily mined: the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We used the FEMA freestanding disaster management course, which is online, and Cynthia Casey picked out the certification classes she thought should be most useful for our students,” Franklin said. “Those classes are really tough.”

To tailor the material for health care professionals, Sarah Adcock, reference librarian in the Rowland Medical Library, pitched in, gathering resources and a list of required readings.

Taking on testing duties, pre- and post-, was Carley Dear, director of assessment in the Office of Academic Affairs, who was tapped by Dr. Mitzi Norris, executive director for academic effectiveness in the Office of Academic Affairs.

Portrait of Mitzi Norris

“The students’ response to the totality of the COVID disaster prompted this course,” said Norris, who is the academic administrator for the curriculum. “This is something they can carry forward into their careers, but I hope they won’t have to get into another situation like this in their lifetime.”

They have met this one head-on: While the course practicum, or practical application, features 36 hours of approved volunteer work, many of the students met this requirement several times over, even before their Disaster Management Course commenced.

And it did commence – in what must have been record time. Over the mid-March spring break, the course framework materialized in about four days, Franklin said. To prepare an academic course, she said, you usually have a semester, she said; that is, four or five months.

Still, this was a “ground-breaking” opportunity to create an all-schools-on-deck interprofessional academic course, Franklin said. Students from all seven campus schools signed up.

“We have tried and tried to figure out how to do that before,” Franklin said. “This time we did, because we had to do it quickly.” But they needed help.

“That’s the unique thing about UMMC,” Franklin said. “Somewhere on campus you will find an expert on just about anything. As long as you know somebody, you are going to get help.”

Erin McDevitt, a first-year medical student enrolled in the Disaster Management Course for students, assembles a COVID-19 test kit Friday at the Medical Center.
Erin McDevitt, an M1 enrolled in the Disaster Management Course for students, assembles a COVID-19 test kit May 1 at the Medical Center.

Help came from Dr. David Fowler, chief institutional research officer, who developed a mechanism to track volunteer hours. Heidi Shoemake and Elizabeth Jacobs in the Division of Information Services coped with course management.

In the Student Records and Registrar’s Office, Emily Cole, Christi Hardy, and Lauren Nichols have emerged as the gurus for transcription guidance.

Rounding up a volunteer registration and assignment process, said Didlake, were “the Energizer bunny,” aka, Ezekiel Gonzales-Fernandez, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate; and Dr. Jerry Clark, chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine.

Portrait of Nick c

Among the task-takers is Nick Roy, a third-year medical student from Moss Point. “Students, including medical students, don’t like to sit around doing nothing,” Roy said.

When on-campus classes were cancelled in deference to social distancing, there was a lull for the students that lasted only as long as it took them to step up and raise their hands for deployment in the virus war.

“This is kind of a crash course in something totally unexpected,” Roy said. “But it’s been a big learning experience. We learn how to work as a team. We learn how to deal with patients in times of crisis.

“This has taught physicians that, even in such times, we have to do our jobs and adapt. It also humbled me in a lot of ways. People in the health sciences have been able to see that everyone can make a difference.

“If you do your part, along with the efforts of others, you can help so many people.”

Roy is one of the 138 enrolled students who have done just that. Those who finish the course before the end of July –nine have so far – earn two hours of academic credit, at their own pace, and at no financial cost to them.

Portrait of Dr. Ralph Didlake

“Our students in all schools are smart and committed, and they saw this not only as an opportunity to make a difference, but also as a duty to serve,” Didlake said. “It speaks very loudly about the character of our student body, and the character of our faculty.

“But this is not just about giving students credit for volunteer work. This course has real academic rigor. They have core readings, quizzes and exams.

“They have to learn the content for four different FEMA certifications. They have to write a piece where they reflect on their experience.”

Srivastava, the dental student, has certainly been reflecting as she heads toward graduation isolated from those who mean the most to her.

“I can’t wait to see my parents in a non-COVID world,” she said. “I haven’t been able to hug them for six weeks. That’s the hardest part. And sometimes I feel like I’m one misstep from contracting the virus.

“But I started doing this work because there is a need. And it’s been good to know that people value what we’re doing, especially when they see us working day in and day out.

“I sure hope we don’t have another pandemic. But this is about all national disasters as well. Floods, earthquakes – those are things that happen more often, and this course is applicable to those disasters as well.

“This helps me be prepared for whatever is next. Because something else will happen. I just hope it won’t be often.”