Lewis Katz School of Medicine Students Step Up to Assist Afghanistan Evacuees
When leaders of the Temple Emergency Action Corps (TEAC) learned that flights carrying Afghan evacuees would be arriving soon at the Philadelphia International Airport, the students at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine sprang into action to do what they do best – to lend a hand wherever they were needed.
The medical students collected donations, made pharmacy runs, purchased, and delivered basic necessities for the youngest passengers getting off the flights, and pitched in at the medical screening and triage areas.
“We were willing to fill in any gaps because as medical students we can be used as a resource,” said Trish Dunham, a second-year medical student and co-president of TEAC. “Wherever they really needed us, we were there, willing to help.”
Dunham said one of the group’s advisors, Maura Sammon, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine, alerted TEAC on August 26 that the flights would begin arriving at the airport within the next few days. Nishant Saharan, a second-year medical student and co-president of TEAC, began working with Dr. Sammon on an initial needs assessment. Students who spoke the same languages – Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and Farsi — as those who would be arriving were contacted and asked to volunteer.
TEAC leaders also sent a request for donations to their classmates and faculty members and then the larger local community. “It actually snowballed into this amazing response,” Dunham said. Over the course of the next few weeks, TEAC collected and used money to buy baby formula, Pedialyte, baby bottles, children’s shoes, kids’ clothing, and diaper rash cream. They purchased stuffed animals, including lots of teddy bears, for the children emerging from the planes and arranged for a charity to deliver strollers.
The first flight landed shortly before dawn on August 28, carrying hundreds of evacuees who had fled their homeland to seek refuge. TEAC members helped make up the volunteer army of health-care workers from around the city who were waiting in the processing center in Terminal A-East to provide compassionate care.
Over the next several days, as multiple flights arrived, TEAC’s role evolved from providing necessities to assisting more with medical response. Students kept the triage area supplied with over-the-counter drugs such as glucose strip monitors and Tylenol. Those who had been trained to give COVID-19 vaccine shots, and had administered those shots in Philadelphia clinics, filled in when staffing was short.
Because TEAC members were registered with the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Health Corps and thus had airport security clearance, TEAC was on the scene from the start and became the hub for managing the response by medical students throughout Philadelphia. Caroline Westwood, a second-year medical student, served as volunteer coordinator, keeping track of the shifts needed, the students with key language skills, and those who had airport clearances. Students signed up to be on call for four- to six-hour shifts around the clock.
Kerry McCans TEAC’s CPR and Co-Disaster Response Coordinator, credited Westwood’s organizational skills as vital to the operation. “Caroline had these perfect spreadsheets in place,” McCans said. “She was so incredibly on top of things.”
“We had students from all over Philadelphia who spoke the main languages of the evacuees and that was really important for patient advocacy,” Dunham, the TEAC co-president said. These students assisted physicians with cultural issues and spoke to evacuees about the COVID-19 vaccine shots that were available.
McCans said the scene at the airport changed from day to day as the flights continued, and because she mostly worked night shifts, the mood was often very quiet.
“People coming off the planes were very tired. We just wanted to get everybody checked, get them the help they needed, and then get them to a place where they could get some sleep,” she said. After leaving the airport, most of the Afghan nationals boarded buses for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey for temporary housing and to await resettlement.
McCans said she came away from taking part in her first large-scale event with two lessons. The first was how willing people were to help in an emergency. The second, which she learned from Dr. Sammon, was how to direct that help so that it was used most effectively.
Asked how she and other busy medical students found time to volunteer, McCans said she had learned to lean heavily on other TEAC leaders, especially Co-Disaster Response Coordinator Jason Martinez, to delegate responsibilities. Katz School of Medicine professors were supportive, too, by giving students leeway in meeting their deadlines.
Although there is a pause currently in the incoming flights, it’s clear that TEAC’s effort is not over. The Biden administration said on September 24 that the Philadelphia airport had already received 12,000 Afghan nationals, and that going forward, it was going to be the main U.S. hub for receiving the evacuees.
Dunham said TEAC would be helping again with the response from Oct. 5-20. The group is organizing medical school volunteers from Temple, Jefferson, Penn, Drexel, Cooper, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Those who are trained vaccinators will help at the airport as needed.
As she reflected on her experience during the initial effort, Dunham said she enjoyed seeing the Afghan children smiling and relaxing at the airport after such an arduous journey. “It was great to see people who were happy and safe,” she said.
- Lillian Swanson