Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Three members of the Maine COVID Sitters – medical school students assisting health care workers with chores at home – are helping to care for young children of the Heise family in Scarborough. From left: University of New England second-year med school students Hillary Landsman and Sam Mansberger, Rob Heise, 6-year-old Eliot Heise, Claudia Heise, 3-year-old Poppy Heise, and third-year Tufts med school student Katie Ward. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When Dr. Claudia Heise leaves her Scarborough home in the morning for the Mercy Hospital primary care clinic in South Portland, she doesn’t have to worry about leaving her young children behind.

The kids are being cared for by members of the Maine COVID Sitters, a group of medical school students aiding health care workers at their homes while they work on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. The help comes in the form of baby-sitting, pet-sitting or household chores.

“I couldn’t be doing what I do without them,” said Heise. “I feel incredibly fortunate.”

Laura Knapik, 28, a medical school student at the University of New England, was at the forefront of establishing the Maine COVID Sitters. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Med students from Tufts University and the University of New England form the bulk of the 50 volunteers who are helping 15 families, with some University of Southern Maine nursing students also involved. They don’t get paid for their services. And the group is affiliated with neither the hospitals they serve nor the schools the volunteers come from.

“As med students, we all entered this profession because we have a desire to help people,” said Laura Knapik, a second-year UNE med student. “But now, because where we are in our careers, we can’t stand next to the health care professionals. This is just a small way to make things easier for them, which in turn helps the patients.”

Knapik, a 28-year-old from Northbridge, Massachusetts, is still in the classroom phase of her medical school studies. Others, such as Becca Bell and Jackie O’Sullivan of Tufts University, are in their third year and were involved in clinical work at hospitals. Bell, a 26-year-old from Yarmouth, was at both Maine Medical Center in Portland and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick; O’Sullivan, a 26-year-old from Weymouth, Massachusetts, was at Cary Medical Center in Caribou.

Then the coronavirus outbreak hit Maine. The med students were told they could not continue their clinical work, where they are side-by-side with doctors at the hospitals.

“Right now, when there is such a need for the health care profession to step up, we felt it was wrong for us to be home in the safety of our apartments while everyone else was out there taking risks,” Bell said. “We’re taking every precaution to be safe and to stay safe. We want to help in any way we can. And we felt this was a responsible way to do that.”

Knapik was at the forefront of establishing the Maine COVID Sitters, modeled after a similar effort in Minnesota. She reached out to the Minnesota COVID Sitters, which shared their templates and forms with Knapik.

Within 48 hours, the program was up and running in Maine, complete with a website (mecovidsitters.org) that includes links for health care workers to sign up and for students to volunteer – and anyone involved undergoes a background check, said Knapik. The students who were involved in clinical work contacted doctors they had partnered with to pass along their information to other health care professionals.

“Within 24 hours,” said Knapik, “we were getting requests.”

They serve families with employees from Maine Med, Mercy Hospital, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. “We’re looking to help people all over,” said Bell.

Now, said Knapik, “because of the demand we’re seeing, we need more volunteers.”

Becca Bell of Yarmouth is a third-year medical student at Tufts University. “Right now, when there is such a need for the health care profession to step up, we felt it was wrong for us to be home in the safety of our apartments while everyone else was out there taking risks,” she says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For many, it involves baby-sitting. And that is a great relief for health care families. Heise said without them, either she or her husband, Rob, would have to cut back hours. They have two children, 6-year-old Eliot (who is home because schools are closed) and 3-year-old Poppy (who had been at a day care center). Rob Heise, an IT manager at Wex, is working from home now. Before the Maine COVID Sitters arrived, he said, “I was doing full-time day care and full-time work. And it wasn’t going very smoothly.”

A colleague told Claudia Heise about Maine COVID Sitters. She contacted them and within two days was assigned three students. “We try to get multiple students, or a pod, to a family so the burden doesn’t fall on just one student, who is still studying to be a doctor,” said Bell, noting that they are all now taking online classes. “We’re also trying to respect social distancing and we don’t want to introduce too many new people into these homes to people who are on the front line.”

Jackie O’Sullivan, a Tufts University medical school student, says of Maine COVID Sitters, “It makes me feel like I’m contributing in a small way.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Asked if she was concerned about being exposed to the virus, O’Sullivan said: “We take every precaution. We practice social distancing; we wash our hands as much as we can. Plus, I know the family I’m with, the house is cleaned every night. We just need to take care of the kiddos.”

Claudia Heise, too, thought about possible exposure. “It’s one of those things, when reaching out to them, I thought, ‘I don’t know them, but they don’t know me either,'” she said. “I could bring them into my house and bring (the virus) to them too. But, you know the saying, ‘It takes a village.’ This is our village and we’re really leaning on it. We’re trusting them and they’re trusting us. We’re just trusting in humankind.”

The three sitters who serve the Heise family – Katie Ward, a third-year student from Tufts, and Sam Mansberger and Hillary Landsman, both second-year UNE students – enjoy their time with the children as well. They play games – a lot of hide-and-seek and tag – and on Friday participated in kid’s yoga, to the theme of the Disney movie “Frozen.” “I need to incorporate that into my yoga program,” said Ward.

They also have teaching lessons for Eliot, who is in kindergarten. “As medical students, when the pandemic started we just all wanted to do something to help,” said Landsman. “We knew we couldn’t directly interact with patients but we wanted to do something. Plus I really like being with kids.”

The Maine COVID Sitters are run by a group of directors that includes Knapik, Bell, O’Sullivan, Catherine Cattley, Lindsey Millen, Margaret Calamari and Colin Fisher. Each is assigned a specific department to oversee (such as safety and protocol, student involvement, web development), with Knapik the director of operations.

O’Sullivan had just returned from Caribou and was beginning her psychiatric rotation at Maine Med when she was told that the program had been canceled because of the outbreak.  “It’s only maybe 10-12 hours a week, so it’s not that difficult,” she said. “And I know the family appreciates it. And it makes me feel like I’m contributing in a small way.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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