Mount Sinai Student Volunteers Provide Hurricane Relief 

Seventy-two hours after Superstorm Sandy battered New York, volunteer staff and students from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai were knocking on doors in lower Manhattan, Coney Island, and Far Rockaway to identify and help the region’s most vulnerable residents. On 21 of the first 24 days that followed the storm, Mount Sinai had a volunteer presence in these areas with a total participation of 65 physicians and approximately 95 medical students, nurses, physician assistants, social workers, and other professionals from Mount Sinai providing medical relief. The selfless efforts of these individuals helped countless individuals, including a 99-year-old woman whose life was changed by their caring. 

“We’d heard that the Stuyvesant Town - Peter Cooper Village housing complex was looking for volunteers to help their older residents, who were at high risk for all the problems associated with the storm, like power outages and loss of elevators,” says Hannah Oakland, a second-year medical student and president of the Geriatrics Student Interest Group. “So we reached out to students via email, and 30 of them, plus people from the graduate school and their spouses immediately, volunteered—it was an amazing response.” 

Oakland and fellow second-year student Michael Vishnevetsky were among the first to arrive at Peter Cooper Village the Friday after the storm. They checked in with organizers at the community center, then started knocking on doors, looking for residents who needed help. The storm had left the community with no power (meaning no heat or elevators) and no drinkable water, leaving many elderly and disabled residents stranded in their apartments, unable to get essentials like food and prescription refills. 

“All the buildings were 14 stories, so we took flashlights, started climbing, and essentially went door-to-door asking if people had any medical needs,” says Vishnevetsky. “The older residents seemed really comforted to know someone was there checking on them.” The student volunteers ran into a number of concerns among residents, most notably people with chronic conditions needing medication, and people who were confused by the complex instructions on freeze-dried food packets that had been distributed earlier. 

Among the residents Oakland and Vishnevetsky met was a 99-year-old woman named Pearl, who lived on the 14th floor of her building. That afternoon she answered their knock seeming calm and well-adjusted, leaving Vishnevetsky impressed that someone of her advanced years was dealing with the storm so well. But other Mount Sinai volunteers were soon to discover that Pearl’s situation was much more complex than first appeared.

Pearl’s Story 

On Saturday November 3rd, while Oakland and Vishnevetsky continued to canvass throughout Peter Cooper Village, more Mount Sinai team members arrived to volunteer. Among them was Jennifer Griffith, Program Manager in the Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, who reported to the community center, where personnel from the Red Cross and New York Cares were also on the scene. Griffith was waiting to receive her volunteer assignment when a resident came in frantically trying to find help for his neighbor, who was refusing to leave her newly evacuated building. 

Griffith and a friend, photojournalist Syd London, followed the man to his neighbor’s building—which firemen had deemed structurally unsound due to flooding—and to a 14th floor apartment, where they found Pearl curled up under a half dozen blankets on her couch. She had deteriorated significantly since the day before. 

“Pearl was very distressed and disoriented, and she kept saying she didn’t want to leave her home but she knew it wasn’t safe to stay in the building,” says Griffith. “She had no family nearby and the home health aide who had once been taking care of her had stopped visiting, and Pearl was afraid that if she was made to evacuate her home she’d never be brought back.” 

Griffith’s team called in a Mount Sinai PhD student and a volunteer psychologist from The Children’s Village to help. Meanwhile, Griffith started placing calls to find Pearl’s old home health aide service, and finally succeeded in arranging for an aide to start the following day. At the psychologist’s suggestion, Griffith also found two volunteers to spend the night with Pearl. 

At the same time, Oakland and Vishnevetsky were continuing to canvass throughout the community, although fewer residents answered their knocks because so many buildings had been evacuated. Still, for residents in need of assistance they were able to provide services such as checking heart rates and blood pressure, getting prescriptions refilled at local pharmacies (many of which waived co-pays), alerting volunteer physicians to any residents with more complex medical needs, and even walking one resident with a mental health condition to a nearby emergency room for assessment. 

“It was amazing how easy it was to mobilize so many people,” says Oakland. “And I was so impressed by everyone’s humility. No one acted like it was beneath them to lug water up a flight of steps or sit outside someone’s door, waiting for them to answer. So I really appreciate that for all the students, physicians, social workers, and specialists who were there, no job was too small.”

Proud to be Mount Sinai 

A week after their initial visit, London went back to see Pearl and was thrilled to find her flourishing in the care of the home health aide Griffith had arranged. “Pearl was so much happier!” London says. “She’d had her hair and nails done, and she had a space heater. It was really a testament to what happens when geriatric advocacy and medical teams come together. I was so impressed with the commitment of the Mount Sinai volunteers—everyone was clearly coming from a genuine place of concern and wanting to help.” 

Griffith has since kept in touch with Pearl, acting as a point person between her social worker, neighbor, and distant relatives to make sure she’s getting the care she needs. “For me, this whole experience has underscored how essential it is to have an interdisciplinary team not just in a hospital setting, but also in areas like disaster relief,” says Griffith. “I think Pearl’s case exemplifies why it’s necessary to bring different areas together to provide a whole picture of care. It’s also made me so proud to be a part of Mount Sinai and in particular my Department—Go Geriatrics!” 

All those who volunteered found the experience similarly rewarding. “As medical students, we sometimes feel like we can’t yet do anything to help people,” says Vishnevetsky, who, along with other Mount Sinai students, has continued to volunteer his services to post-storm relief efforts in Coney Island and the Rockaways. “But it was so encouraging through this experience to realize how little it takes to really make a difference in someone’s life. Even just walking up a few flights of steps and asking if someone was okay really seemed to reassure people, and that was incredibly gratifying.”