Faced with the biggest medical crisis in generations, a few prospective physicians who are still in school said they couldn’t simply stand on the sidelines.

Laura Knapik Submitted photo

“This is why I entered medicine – to help patients in times of crises,” said Laura Knapik, a second-year student at The University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford.

Knapik and four other students at the school formed the Maine COVID Sitters to connect volunteers studying in the health care field with harried providers who might need assistance with everything from child care to running errands.

About 50 students in the region are involved so far, she said, with more signing up daily to provide some free personal backup to doctors, nurses and others who are busy caring for ill Mainers.

The group, touted recently by Central Maine Healthcare, is offering its help to everybody who’s working to help provide care – including doctors, technicians, custodians, nurses and others.

It’s just one of many ways the community has stepped up to help Central Maine Medical Center and its affiliated hospitals and practices.

Kate Carlisle, spokeswoman for the health care company, said it is “enormously grateful to our communities for their generosity in this public-health emergency.”

Colin Fisher Submitted photo

“From Bates College, which volunteered 3-D printing resources — and expertise — to work on face shields and filters for respirators, to local distilleries who have helped with the manufacture of hand sanitizer, to the many individuals who have asked, simply, ‘How can I help?'” she said.

Carlisle said one local business owner donated $500 worth of food “for our busy Emergency Department staff. Others stepped up to supply handmade cloth masks.”

One of Carlisle’s colleagues said the rapid manufacture of hand sanitizer to fill a supply gap showed “good old New England ingenuity,” she said.

“I would only add that it’s a particular Maine tradition: looking out for your neighbor. Whether it’s plowing out your driveway or supplying 300 gallons of critical sanitizer, Mainers step up,” Carlisle said.

The students who offered to lend a hand are among them, she said.

Knapik said they’re getting a good response from “our future colleagues” who are glad to lend a helping hand.

Lindsey Millen Submitted photo

Knapik and four other medical school students — Catherine Cattley, Lindsey Millen, Maggie Calamari and Colin Fisher – modeled their new group on one already operating in Minnesota.

It set out to provide services to “our community health care heroes on the frontlines of the battle in this unprecedented pandemic.”

The Minnesota group has more than 300 students – mostly studying to become doctors or nurses — ready to offer assistance “to anyone from resident doctors to the remarkable humans who keep our hospitals clean” in a bid to “offset the impact of school closures and increased work demands” on health care staff.

It has become a model not just for the Maine group but also similar ones that have formed in a few cities across the country, including the nation’s capital, Houston and Los Angeles.

Knapik said the Minnesota group proved especially helpful in handing over materials to help get the Greater Portland area organization up and running quickly.

Maggie Calamari Submitted photo

“We owe a lot to them,” she said.

She said her group urgently needs more health care students to sign up to help.

Most of the students involved, Knapik said, are still hitting the books for their normal coursework, disrupted as it may be this semester. They typically set aside some hours to volunteer, she said, while making sure they keep up with their own work.

Because of the nature of their studies, the students involved have already had background checks, Knapik said, but aren’t certified child care experts. They do know some medicine, though.

She said one of the problems they’ve been able to help is for people who work in health care settings who have to figure out how to handle their own children who are no longer going to schools because of the national effort to slow the spread of the virus.

With assistance from Maine COVID Sitters, they know they can go to work and their kids will be safe, Knapik said.

Catherine Cattley Submitted photo

She said that generally there are three to five students working with each family that has requested help so they can stagger shifts to make sure someone is available when needed.

The Maine group started taking online requests from health care providers last week and quickly began providing assistance. It is looking for more students to participate so it can expand its ability to help.

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