The stories are tragic, and the stories are many—especially if you live in New York City, where the pandemic has hit the hardest. A family member has COVID-19. They are dying in a hospital. And because of necessary safety protocols restricting visitors, they are dying in isolation.
Earlier this month, graduating SUNY Downstate medical student Amy Johnson and classmate Jeffrey Arace launched an initiative to help take on the problem with tech. They were joined by film and photography producer Ian Kaplan, commercial and documentary film producer Wyatt Angelo, and SUNY Downstate student Shenara Musthaq—and the team has quickly built iPads to Hospitals into a COVID-19 relief project that has proven to be critical for patients longing for connection.
Their process: Collect underutilized, pre-owned iPads via contactless pickup and through the mail from donors around the country. The team then loads them with a medley of video conferencing platforms, from the on-board FaceTime to Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. They then get them to hospitals, where each upcycled device aids multiple patients.
Here, the team discusses the initiative. For more info—and to donate an iPad or funds to acquire more—click here.
How did you first realize the need for this project?
Johnson: I’m a graduating medical student, entering psychiatry residency in June, and I’d been speaking with an ER physician regarding what my role might look like if I qualified for early graduation. She explained the dire need for people to assist patients in communicating with their families using their limited supply of iPads, as many patients were dying alone. I was distraught by the news that this was happening, so I looked into if they could accept iPads donated by community members. One Instagram and Twitter post later, my email inbox was being flooded with donation inquiries from all over the country. I reached out to Jeffrey Arace, a fellow SUNY Downstate medical student who had swiftly organized the collection of iPads from the medical students, to combine our efforts. And at that point, I began reaching out to my contacts at other NYC hospitals, as I realized our incoming supply could serve the needs of more than just University Hospital of Brooklyn at SUNY Downstate.
Arace: Shortly after our hospital restricted visitors, I spoke with a patient who showed me how heartbreaking it was. She was an elderly woman who had been in the hospital for over a week with COVID-19. During that time her husband, who had also tested positive for the virus, was admitted to a different hospital. She tried calling him but the virus had made it so difficult for him to breathe that he couldn’t speak more than a few words. Knowing the seriousness of his condition, she was afraid she would never see him again. A dialysis patient herself, she has been hospitalized many times over the years but has always had her family at the bedside for support. “Without them, I am devastated,” she told me. At that time I knew we had to do something to connect patients and their families.
Kaplan: I became aware of this initiative thanks to a friend of mine reposting one of Amy’s story posts on Instagram two weeks ago. The concept that New Yorkers were dying alone and scared in the COVID-19 units of hospitals resonated with me in a deeply profound way, and within 24 hours I came to the decision that this is what I’m going to dedicate my days to for the time being.
Have you started delivery to hospitals? And how does the submission process to hospitals work?
Johnson: As of April 19, we have delivered 346 iPads to a total of eight hospitals and one nursing home/rehabilitation center, spread across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Long Island and even Boston. We have over 150 additional iPads committed for donation at this time, with our numbers rising every day. All of our donation pick-ups and drop-offs are contactless, and our volunteers wear masks when outside. For hospital drop-offs, one volunteer prepares the box of iPad donations for the hospital and places it into the trunk of the volunteer driver’s car. Upon arrival at the hospital, the healthcare worker wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) removes the box of iPad donations from the trunk, and hospital staff then sanitize the iPads upon receipt. Using this system, we are able to follow the social distancing recommendations.
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Which hospitals are you focusing the initiative on?
Musthaq: We are primarily focusing on publicly funded hospitals and nonprofit hospitals around New York City. These hospitals treat an underserved population who have been heavily affected by the virus and who are also a demographic less likely to have a phone with video chat capability. However, we seek to fulfill requests or provide guidance to every hospital that contacts us for a donation. When people are as sick as these patients, a phone, tablet or charger may not have made the trip to the hospital, and our aim is that every sick patient has the capability to communicate with their loved ones.
How are you handling the learning curve of people who might not be familiar with iPads?
Kaplan: The hospitals currently being hit the hardest with overflowing COVID-19 units are sometimes also the ones with the least resources to help troubleshoot technical issues. There’s nothing that we can do about this unfortunate fact, and with us not being able to enter the hospitals, we’ve done what we consider to be the next best thing to support the effective use of these iPads: make ourselves personally available 24/7 to troubleshoot remotely when called upon, and type up consolidated instructions for how to initiate video conference calls on a variety of apps, and share them with the hospitals that we are serving. We’ve also taken measures to ensure that donors of used iPads are given all of the necessary guidance to be able to properly factory reset their device before handing off or mailing in. It’s a specific and technical process, so
people who otherwise use their iPad for lighter duty tasks sometimes need a helping hand.
How many people are involved with the project?
Johnson: Currently, Ian, Wyatt, Shenara and I are working full time on this project to facilitate the day-to-day operations; however, we now have over 15 dedicated volunteers that are involved, mostly all either fellow film/photography producers or medical students. Our unique combination of healthcare alongside media backgrounds, I think, is what has propelled this into such a large and effective initiative in such a short period of time.
Have you heard any personal stories of people using them so far?
Angelo: I’ve reached out to a couple of people on social media who have shared their experience using tablets to contact hospitalized family members. In particular, a young woman in New York did a group chat with her parents, siblings, and her hospitalized grandfather using an iPad. They were able to share with him a song sung by his great-grandchildren, a couple of family jokes, and to tell him how important he had been to all of them before a final “I love you.” Miraculously, he has pulled through for the time, but she said that moment gave the entire family a chance to pay their respects to someone very important to them and a sense of peace they would not have otherwise had. Stories like this have only affirmed our cause and our goal to facilitate this experience for as many families as we can.
Is there a plan for the iPads after the crisis? (Will they stay with the hospitals?)
Musthaq: As of right now we have been focusing on the need at hand, and the hospitals are our endpoint of donation. If we find the need declines in NYC but rises in other cities, we have thought to look into reallocation. However, because of the nature of the hospitals to which we have donated, if they have a future need for the technology, we would be happy to support them after the immense support they have provided for our community.
Is this something you would like to see others take up around the country?
Johnson: Absolutely, as long as there is a demand in that area. We have actually received messages from people across the country eager to bring this initiative to their community. I have been assisting these individuals in how best to contact local hospitals to assess their needs, and once the demand is verified, we are more than happy to share our methods for collecting and distributing donations. At times, I have been able to connect these individuals with other groups across the country that are starting similar initiatives in their city.
Kaplan: A main goal of ours throughout this whole process has been to “open source” the set of guidelines and tools we’ve developed to address this problem in New York City. More than anything, I would love to see the need for our efforts disappear altogether. But as long as there are cities with hospitals where COVID-19 patients are unable to stay connected with their families, I would like to see our systems for building an iPad donation effort being used there.