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Two young teens’ compassion has inspired hundreds of volunteers around the globe to join them in alleviating the isolation and tedium of patients facing extended stays in Bay Area medical facilities.
Comprising mostly high school and college students, the Fremont-based Medical Students Association pays virtual visits to both youngsters and the elderly, lifting spirits with activities tailored to individuals’ interests and physical well-being.
COVID-19 provided the inspiration for the outreach that two high school sophomores kicked off in October 2020.
Bhuvi Kedia and Sashank Batchu, then 14-year-olds at American High School in Fremont and members of an after-school club focused on health careers, discovered they shared an interest in the welfare of patients who were physically cut off from the rest of the world by the pandemic.
“As humans we need social interaction but these patients … did not receive it,” said Sashank, 16, noting that at the peak of the COVID crisis all patients were confined to their rooms around the clock and weren’t allowed to have visitors.
He and Bhuvi decided to harness the power of technology to bring companionship to these shut-ins.
“We thought about it for a day or two … and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Both of us are so passionate about this topic that we didn’t want to leave things the way they were,” Bhuvi said. “We thought if we had the ability and the skills to organize something and establish a platform through which we can help not just the people we know but as many patients [as] we can, we wanted to do that.”
She contacted a pediatric nursing facility in Saratoga where students had volunteered in the past and pitched the project.
Instead of dismissing Bhuvi and Sashank for being too young, the activities director embraced their idea of leveraging the internet to pair volunteers with these patients.
Flushed with success, the teens were off and running.
Introducing themselves as cofounders of the Medical Students Association, they began calling other facilities and set up an Instagram account to recruit volunteers who would support the vision.
The goal was to enlist 25 to 30 helpers, so Bhuvi and Sashank were taken aback when about 500 prospects from Europe, Canada, the Middle East, India and China filled out the application form they had designed.
“It was literally across the world,” said Sashank, who spent a weekend with his classmate sifting through the forms to narrow down the pool and interviewing dozens of prospects. “Me and Bhuvi still don’t know how it blew up.”
Less than two years later the goodwill has spread to 25 medical facilities from San Jose to Castro Valley, as well as Washington, New Jersey and Canada.
Bhuvi and Sashank’s network now boasts 752 volunteers who collectively are bringing comfort to 1,509 patients.
They are matched based on shared interests: Bhuvi recalls spending time with one little girl who loved Disney movies as well as hairstyling and makeup sessions. The two of them would sing along to Disney soundtracks and shared a computer screen as they used interactive software to apply cosmetics and hairdos to one of the main characters in the movie “Frozen.”
Volunteers who have a knack for musical instruments will hop on Zoom to entertain facility residents with the piano, violin or saxophone.
One person watched Super Bowl highlights with a teenage boy who loved sports; others have drawn pictures with patients on a virtual whiteboard.
Virtual tourism platforms offer patients a temporary escape from their surroundings with 3D trips to popular destinations like the Eiffel Tower and Colosseum, as well as ocean explorations in a submarine. And animal lovers can visit zoos via streaming video from cameras in the wildlife enclosures.
Volunteers also hold online exercise sessions, teaching children simple dance routines and demonstrating stretching techniques for seniors.
And if a patient has trouble with English, a bank of volunteers who speak Arabic, Spanish, Cantonese, Korean and Punjabi is available to close the communication gap during the get-togethers.
Bhuvi and Sashank supplement the online socializing with “care kits” they hand deliver, each containing small gifts chosen with the recipient’s physical needs in mind.
The lotions are useful for therapeutic massages; scented candles stimulate those parts of the brain that affect emotions, enhancing a sense of well-being, Bhuvi said. Squeezing stress balls strengthens hand muscles and thereby reduces tremors, she added.
Similarly, manipulating Play-Doh and palpitating Ziploc bags of raw pasta and beans can improve the fine motor skills needed to hold a pen and handle puzzle pieces, she said.
Sashank does the shopping for the kits, scouring the websites of Amazon, Target and Walmart to furnish the care kits with toys and games. Diversions include miniature guitars and plastic harmonicas, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, stuffed animals — “whatever we can find,” Bhuvi said.
The $6,406 she and Sashank have raised to date comes in part from Medical Students Association’s crowdfunding site; they also have received donations from businesses that match employees’ gifts or pledge sums based on the amount of hours their workers invest in the project.
The dynamic duo has buttressed its credibility among would-be sponsors by finding a Fremont nonprofit to oversee the association’s finances and lend it the tax-exempt status that Bhuvi said would have taken her and Sashank a long time to acquire on their own.
Now that COVID restrictions have relaxed, they take turns visiting patients at a memory care facility on Saturdays.
Together, they also meet with volunteers and delegate tasks, plan gatherings to assemble the care kits, seek financial support and look for ways to spread the word about Medical Students Association’s efforts, tasks that Bhuvi said take her upwards of eight hours a week to do.
With her sights set on med school and Sashank preparing for a career in data science, they’re also busy this summer writing a raft of essays for college applications.
In addition, Bhuvi is working at a medical device company where she has a full-time internship, and Sashank is at the University of California, Irvine campus attending a month of math and science classes for gifted high school students. He’s also helping a professor at the University of Washington with research in the field of bioinformatics.
But it’s all good, Bhuvi says, noting that she considers her and Sashank’s charitable work a welcome break from the grind.
“(It’s) what I do for fun,” she said.
To donate to Medical Students Association, visit https://secure.givelively.org/donate/hackplus/medical-students-association. To volunteer with the organization or learn more, visit https://medstudentsa.wixsite.com/website-msa.