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In a health crisis, past and current Penn Pre-Health Programs students pitch in

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Cait Cavarocchi (left) and Diana Zarowin (right)
July 21, 2020

Cait Cavarocchi was in her second term of Penn’s Pre-Health Programs when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. Like many students, Cait and her classmates completed the term online in accordance with the order to stay home and maintain social distance—but it was hard, knowing that members of her chosen profession were working on the front lines of the disease. “I decided to form the Coronavirus Committee because I couldn't sit in my apartment anymore, looking out my window and not doing anything,” Cait recalls.

Cait first reached out to her peers in Penn Future Women in Health, one of several special interest organizations created by Pre-Health students. Cait’s Coronavirus Committee focused on sewing masks to donate and writing letters to Congress representatives to ask for more personal protection equipment (PPE). In the process, Cait connected with Diana Zarowin (Penn Pre-Health Programs `18) to discuss volunteer work and donations.

Diana, who founded Penn Future Women in Health, the official American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) branch at the University of Pennsylvania, during her time in the Pre-Health Programs in 2016, has also coordinated a volunteer group in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Based out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where Diana just completed her first year, Food for the Front Lines @ Einstein/Montefiore coordinates funds, donations, and collaborative partnerships to organize food deliveries to frontline healthcare workers at the six main hospitals of the Montefiore Health System. “Diana’s been donating to our group, and we’ve been donating to her group,” adds Cait. “We’re all in communication about how we can support each other.”

Diagnosing and treating a community need

Like Cait, Diana felt an urgent need to support the medical community while also following medical advice and safety procedures. “We had all of this pent-up energy, and we wanted to do something,” she says of her fellow first-year medical students. “But what can be done in a situation like this, given the restrictions for safety?” Her first step was to establish a GoFundMe to raise funds far and wide to purchase food deliveries for Einstein-Montefiore Hospitals, which could be coordinated virtually from a distance.

What Cait and Diana both found is that, once a plan was formed, there was no shortage of people eager to help support health professionals during a public health crisis. "Food for the Front Lines grew much larger than I had anticipated," says Diana. “A really big advantage of this effort is that you can do all of the work remotely. There is no physical contact—anyone can volunteer without compromising their health or anyone else's.” In addition to fundraising, Diana and her team began making calls, sending emails, and connecting through social media with restaurants and vendors who could supply high-quality donations, such as the grocery chain Wegmans and a local Philadelphia favorite, La Colombe Coffee. "What began as just an idea turned into a group of 18 committed students interacting daily with more than 100 companies and eateries, arranging food deliveries, snack donations, coffee and tea supplies, and anything else we could think of that would be helpful for our healthcare workers during this pandemic,” she says.

Likewise, Cait saw the Penn Future Women in Health Coronavirus Committee grow from a few committed members to a coordinated volunteer effort. Different volunteers took on different tasks according to their abilities and comfort levels; one volunteer, for example, compiled addresses and templates to coordinate a letter-writing campaign. “I didn’t want to make anyone feel that they had to leave their home if they were uncomfortable with that,” explains Cait. Other volunteers sewed the masks, researched sewing patterns, sourced the mask kits from a local fabric store that could arrange for contactless pickup, and delivered finished masks where they were needed. By June, the committee had made more than 500 masks and planned to make 1,000 by the end of the summer. “A lot of hospitals have stopped accepting homemade masks, so we’re going to donate to grocery stores and shipping hubs,” says Cait.

Fostering a connection to your community at Penn

For Diana, the drive to create Food for the Front Lines is connected to the drive to found Penn Future Women in Health. “I see a need, and I fill it,” she shares. “I saw what I felt was a need for a group that can have an impact, and I thought, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s see what happens.’” Penn Future Women in Health is a chapter of the American Medical Women's Association, a national organization through which Diana says she has found many friends as well as mentors.

Since 2016, the student group has invited numerous speakers, both locally and across the country, to speak to students about the realities of the health professions, including work-life balance and topics that particularly affect women in healthcare. But volunteering has always been an intrinsic part of the group’s operations, from food and clothing drives and fundraisers to neighborhood clean-ups and community building with local veterans.

“When I came to Penn, I joined as many clubs as I could to try to find what fit me best,” says Cait, who is taking the Core Studies track to move into a career as a physician researching vocal health. It was a little intimidating to enter the program with a background in music performance rather than science, she says, but “Penn Future Women in Health really helped me cultivate the group I wanted and helped me feel secure in my decision to pursue medicine.”

Now the rising president of Penn Future Women in Health for the coming academic year, Cait looks forward to finding ways to make an impact—preferably in concert with other interest groups at Penn and beyond. “Our cohort works very well together, so I’m excited to keep the collaboration going,” she says. “It’s hard to remember when you’re pretty much alone, studying all the time, but we’re all here to do the same thing, and we can all get there together.”

"No matter how challenging this time period has been for us as students, I feel more empowered than ever to be on this path and continue my education to become a physician," adds Diana. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

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