Volunteering During the Pandemic: What Doctors Need to Know

Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD


May 08, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a silly picture of myself with one N95 mask and asked the folks on Twitter what else I might need. In a matter of a few days, I had filled out a form online for volunteering through the Society of Critical Care Medicine, been assigned to work at a hospital in New York City, and booked a hotel and flight.

Dr. Arghavan Salles wears laminated photo provided to her by a stranger to identify herself to patients.

I was going to volunteer, although I wasn’t sure of exactly what I would be doing. I’m trained as a bariatric surgeon – not obviously suited for critical care, but arguably even less suited for medicine wards.

I undoubtedly would have been less prepared if I hadn’t sought guidance on what to bring with me and generally what to expect. Less than a day after seeking advice, two local women physicians donated N95s, face shields, gowns, bouffants, and coveralls to me. I also received a laminated photo of myself to attach to my gown in the mail from a stranger I met online.

Others suggested I bring goggles, chocolate, protein bars, hand sanitizer, powdered laundry detergent, and alcohol wipes. After running around all over town, I was able find everything but the wipes.

Just as others helped me achieve my goal of volunteering, I hope I can guide those who would like to do similar work by sharing details about my experience and other information I have collected about volunteering.

Below I answer some questions that those considering volunteering might have, including why I went, who I contacted to set this up, who paid for my flight, and what I observed in the hospital.

Motivation and Logistics

I am currently serving in a nonclinical role at my institution. So when the pandemic hit the United States, I felt an immense amount of guilt for not being on the front lines caring for patients. I offered my services to local hospitals and registered for the California Health Corps. I live in northern California, which was the first part of the country to shelter in place. Since my home was actually relatively spared, my services weren’t needed.

As the weeks passed, I was slowly getting more and more fit, exercising in my house since there was little else I could do, and the guilt became a cloud gathering over my head.

I decided to volunteer in a place where demands for help were higher – New York. I tried very hard to sign up to volunteer through the state’s registry for health care volunteers, but was unable to do so. Coincidentally, around that same time, I saw on Twitter that Josh Mugele, MD, emergency medicine physician and program director of the emergency medicine residency at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, was on his way to New York. He shared the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s form for volunteering with me, and in less than 48 hours, I was assigned to a hospital in New York City. Five days later I was on a plane from San Francisco to my destination on the opposite side of the country. The airline paid for my flight.

This is not the only path to volunteering. Another volunteer, Sara Pauk, MD, ob.gyn. at the University of Washington, Seattle, found her volunteer role through contacting the New York City Health and Hospitals system directly. Other who have volunteered told me they had contacted specific hospitals or worked with agencies that were placing physicians.


The Brooklyn hospital where I volunteered provided me with two sets of scrubs and two N95s. Gowns were variably available on our unit, and there was no eye protection. As a colleague of mine, Ben Daxon, MD, anesthesia and critical care physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., had suggested, anyone volunteering in this context should bring personal protective equipment (PPE) – That includes gowns, bouffants/scrub caps, eye protection, masks, and scrubs.

The PPE Dr. Arghavan Salles brought with her to volunteer in New York City.

The "COVID Corner"

Once I arrived in New York, I did not feel particularly safe in my hotel, so I moved to another the next day. Then I had to sort out how to keep the whole room from being contaminated. I created a "COVID corner" right by the door where I kept almost everything that had been outside the door.

Every time I walked in the door, I immediately took off my shoes and left them in that corner. I could not find alcohol wipes, even after looking around in the city, so I relied on time to kill the virus, which I presumed was on everything that came from outside.

The view from Dr. Arghavan Salles' hotel room in Brooklyn.

Groceries stayed by the door for 48-72 hours if possible. After that, I would move them to the "clean" parts of the room. I wore the same outfit to and from the hospital everyday, putting it on right before I left and taking it off immediately after walking into the room (and then proceeding directly to the shower). Those clothes – "my COVID outfit" – lived in the COVID corner. Anything else I wore, including exercise clothes and underwear, got washed right after I wore it.

Meal Time

In addition to bringing snacks from home, I gathered some meal items at a grocery store during my first day in New York. These included water, yogurt, a few protein drinks, fruit, and some mini chocolate croissants. It’s a pandemic – chocolate is encouraged, right?

Neither any of the volunteers I knew nor I had access to a kitchen, so this was about the best I could do.

My first week I worked nights and ate sporadically. A couple of days I bought bagel sandwiches on the way back to the hotel in the morning. Other times, I would eat yogurt or a protein bar.

I had trouble sleeping, so I would wake up early and either do yoga in my room or go for a run in a nearby park. Usually I didn’t plan well enough to eat before I went into the hospital, so I would take yogurt, some fruit, and a croissant with me as I headed out. It was hard eating on the run with a mask on my face.

When I switched to working days, I actually ordered proper dinners from local Thai, Mexican, and Indian restaurants. I paid around $20 a meal.

One night I even had dinner with a coworker who was staying at a hotel close to mine – what a luxury! Prior to all this I had been sheltering in place alone for weeks, so in that sense, this experience was a delight. I interacted with other people, in person, every day!

My Commute

My hotel was about 20 minutes from the hospital. Well-meaning folks informed me that Hertz had free car rentals and Uber had discounts for health care workers. When I investigated these options, I found that only employees of certain hospitals were eligible. As a volunteer, I was not eligible.

I ultimately took Uber back and forth, and I was lucky that a few friends had sent me Uber gift cards to defray the costs. Most days, I paid about $20 each way, although 1 day there actually was "surge pricing." The grand total for the trip was close to $800.

Many of the Uber drivers had put up plastic partitions – reminiscent of the plastic Dexter would use to contain his crime scenes – to increase their separation from their passengers. It was a bit eerie, but also somewhat welcome.

New Normal

The actual work at the hospital in Brooklyn where I volunteered was different from usual practice in numerous ways. One of the things I immediately noticed was how difficult it was to get chest x-rays. After placing an emergent chest tube for a tension pneumothorax, it took about 6 hours to get a chest x-ray to assess placement.

Because code medications were needed much more frequently than normal times, these medications were kept in an open supply closet for ease of access. Many of the ventilators looked like they were from the 1970s. (They had been borrowed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

What was most distinct about this work was the sheer volume of deaths and dying patients -- at least one death on our unit occurred every day I was there -- and the way families communicated with their loved ones. Countless times I held my phone over the faces of my unconscious patients to let their family profess their love and beg them to fight. While I have had to deliver bad news over the phone many times in my career, I have never had to intrude on families’ last conversations with their dying loved ones or witness that conversation occurring via a tiny screen.


In many ways, I am lucky that I do not do clinical work in my hometown. So while other volunteers were figuring out how many more vacation days they would have to use, or whether they would have to take unpaid leave, and when and how they would get tested, all I had to do was prepare to go back home and quarantine myself for a couple of weeks.

I used up 2 weeks of vacation to volunteer in New York, but luckily, I could resume my normal work the day after I returned home.

Obviously, living in the pandemic is unique to anything we have ever experienced. Recognizing that, I recorded video diaries the whole time I was in New York. I laughed (like when I tried to fit all of my PPE on my tiny head), and I cried – several times. I suppose 1 day I may actually watch them and be reminded of what it was like to have been able to serve in this historic moment. Until then, they will remain locked up on the same phone that served as the only communication vehicle between my patients and their loved ones.

Dr. Salles is a bariatric surgeon and is currently a Scholar in Residence at Stanford (Calif.) University. She has received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from Intuitive Surgical.

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