Austin Ritter ’08 is a third-year medical student with an interest in infectious diseases and public health. When reports of a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak first appeared in early 2020, he recalls, “I was ready to be there with my attending physicians treating this on the front lines."
“I was nervous but also excited because I had done some research on influenza and virology and this was an area where I felt I could play a part.”
Within weeks, the virus named COVID-19 had become a global pandemic and, with personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply, medical schools across the country, including Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine
(LECOM) where Austin attends, quickly moved to take all students off clinical rotations.
“I knew it was going to be bad early on, so I was able to get past the shock phase of things a bit earlier and start looking for ways to help,” says Austin.
He returned to his parents’ home in Baltimore and began volunteering with #MedSupplyDrive
, a national movement started by third-year medical students at Georgetown University to mobilize and deliver PPE to emergency departments and health centers in dire need. Since its launch on March 17, the organization has donated some 250,000 disposable gloves, masks, and protective wear items and raised nearly $10,000 to purchase and ship them to hot spots throughout the United States.
With his father, Tom Ritter, Austin coordinated delivery of 1,000 surgical masks, courtesy of Tom’s dental practice
in Towson. “We were one of [MedSupplyDrive’s] first bulk donations,” says Austin.
Now the two men are partners in the push to flatten the COVID-19 curve. “Austin does distribution and I do acquisition,” says Tom, who has since engaged his staff of seven in contacting dentists in Baltimore County and asking them to consider donating their PPE.
“[Dentists] need to understand, it’s not going to be ‘business as usual’ any time soon,” says Tom. “In the meantime, their PPE is just going to sit there. It is a moral imperative that they get these items to front-line physicians and that they do it now. Not later.”
For Austin, whose prior work experience includes research stints in marine biology and biocontrol and serving as a medical office assistant at his mother Carol Ritter’s
gynecology practice in Towson, the stark contrast from experiential learning in a healthcare setting to virtual classes is, understandably, disheartening.
“In some ways, we are losing a lot as third year medical students. I was just getting to the point [in rotations] where I was making diagnoses for patients that I felt were impactful. You don’t get that same degree of confidence with the online curriculum,” he says.
Although he and his fellow third-years will have to play “a lot of catch up” with traditional care, Austin, a regional coordinator for MedSupplyDrive, says there are things they will take from the tragedy – about inter-professional collaboration, entrepreneurship, health systems, supply chains, vulnerability, disaster management…and mismanagement.
“I’m hearing from [medical professionals] working in a 40-bed hospital in the middle of Illinois who have zero access to PPE and are making their own masks.”
So, what can homebound members of the Friends community do to help? “Start thinking outside the box,” says Tom.
“Call your dentist and ask if [they’ve] given away their PPE yet, go to your neighbor who is a woodworker. Most people do not realize that N95s are not actually a medical product. They are used by everyone, from plumbers to boat owners. You probably have some PPE in your basement.”
“Even if what we are doing is just .1 percent of filling the gap to provide supplies…” adds Austin, his voice catching with emotion, “I think it means a lot to these physicians that you see them; that you see the work they're doing, and you see how crazy it is that they are having to reuse masks during a pandemic because the need is so great.”
Follow the movement on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @medsupplydrive
Since posting a call to action on April 17 on the Friends School of Baltimore Alumni Facebook page and being added to our Friends School Community Partners List
, Austin received a donation of N95 masks from a classmate and engaged another Friends alum about volunteering with MedSupplyDrive. The Friends School Maintenance Office, additionally, donated four boxes of nitrile (non-latex) gloves, useful in medical settings.