Yale News

When Liam Elkind ’21 left campus for spring break in early March, he never expected to befriend Carol, an immunocompromised woman who lives in his neighborhood.

But soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Elkind met Carol — and many other New Yorkers — after he and two others launched the nonprofit organization Invisible Hands, which delivers groceries and medicine to the elderly and immunocompromised in New York City.  He said he founded the nonprofit to help protect vulnerable groups from the coronavirus. Within two weeks, Elkind has raised over $30,000 and gathered more than 8,000 volunteers throughout the city.

Elkind is just one of many Yalies who have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by helping those who face the highest risk from the virus. From delivering groceries to inventing ventilator adaptations, Yalies have found novel ways to help their communities adapt to the novel coronavirus.

“People, I think, come together in times of crisis … and one of the things that is scary about this crisis is that it’s so hard to pull together,” Elkind said, adding that Invisible Hands has allowed him to “build connections during this isolating time.”

Since its inception, Invisible Hands has garnered support from around the world as lawyers, consultants, software engineers and more have reached out to aid him and the organization in website development, marketing and other services.

The project’s mechanics are simple. Individuals are able to order groceries online, which are then picked up by volunteers. After pick up, the volunteer calls the user and has a conversation with them. This, he noted, is an integral part of the organization — he’s even gotten to know his users’ grandkids over the phone during their daily conversations.

Volunteers are required to follow the CDC recommended guidelines. They wear gloves and sanitize both the basket the groceries were in and the bag they drop off. The groceries are delivered outside the door, and should the volunteer need to be reimbursed, the money is passed under the door.

Yalies’ community assistance takes a number of forms. Members of the engineering program and healthcare community remaining in New Haven have collaborated to use the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design to assist Yale New Haven Hospital by producing medical equipment that may be in short supply. Students and faculty across the engineering and medical programs comprise the Coalition for Health Innovation in Medical Emergencies.

The group has answered the call to combat COVID-19, with members designing novel versions of supplies that Chinese healthcare organizations predicted the U.S. would face a shortage of as the pandemic worsens, CHIME member and assistant professor at the medical school Daniel Wiznia told the News.

Wiznia explained that adapting ventilators to simultaneously treat multiple patients presents a host of unique challenges. Patients’ lungs can have different capacities and abilities to expand. Inventors therefore cannot merely split the ventilator’s airflow between two patients.

But two Yale students — Brian Beitler MED ’22 and Timothy Foldy-Porto ’20 — have surmounted this challenge. The pair has designed and produced a way to adapt ventilators to control their airflow and divert it to multiple patients at once. This past week, they have 3D-printed different models of the design at the CEID and conducted trials on test lungs at YNHH.

The new invention will likely be ready for patient use within the next week or two, Wiznia said, after additional tests and conversations with intensive care unit leadership.

“We’ve made great progress on the ventilation front,” Wiznia said, adding that faculty and staff are also working on creating new N95 masks to help ensure YNHH does not face a shortage of personal protective equipment for medical staff.

Other Yalies have also applied their medical knowledge to their community service. Two School of Public Health students created a service so that elderly and immunocompromised people can stay at home and protect themselves from the virus. Leslie Asanga SPH ’20 and Leonardo Lizbinski SPH ’20 last Monday launched Pills2Me, which assigns volunteers to pick up and deliver medications to people at a high risk of having a serious response to the coronavirus.

Nine Yale faculty and students have since volunteered to help the organization. Asanga made his inaugural delivery last Wednesday, bringing asthma medication and leaving it outside a woman’s mailbox so that she could avoid crowded pharmacies.

Asanga, a pharmacist, had long planned to launch a program to expedite the prescription process. When COVID-19 became more widespread, he noticed increased traffic at the pharmacy, leaving older community members waiting in long lines for their medication. Asanga recruited Lizbinski, a software developer, to help him create a website, and the two have since reached out to local pharmacies to offer their services.

Pills2Me currently operates in New Haven and Las Vegas — Asanga’s hometown — but the two hope to expand to more cities as they find volunteers.

Another student, Cassandra Hsiao ’21, has done her part to ensure people don’t feel alone while social distancing. Hsiao has found a way to engage with others through her club Love Express. 

Hsiao originally started the club in high school where she and her friends handmade cards to send to senior homes, veterans and foster homes celebrating birthdays and other holidays. According to Hsiao, since some immunocompromised individuals may feel the social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to revive the club. 

According to Hsiao, Love Express allows people to “express their creativity in their quarantine and express love through the mail while seniors receive an outpouring of love and thought from the community, reminding them that they are not alone nor forgotten.” 

The cards are filled with inspiring quotes, Bible verses, jokes and letters introducing the writer to the reader. So far, the group has sent over 20 handmade cards to senior homes.

Invisible Hands also provides individuals with companionship in this time of self-isolation, in addition to grocery and medicine delivery, Elkind said. Many of the users have become friends with their volunteers. He specifically mentioned Carol, who made him promise to have tea and cookies with him once social-distancing restrictions are lifted.

“I believe in the fundamental idea of people and our ability to come together,” Elkind said. “So one of the things that we try to emphasize is not only delivering groceries and prescriptions and stuff like that, and obeying all safety precautions, but at the same time socially engaging [with] recipients.”

Elkind noted the amount of community service that he has observed from individuals in this time of need. One particular instance that comes to mind is a doctor who requested to help out on top of his long hours treating COVID-19 patients.

Though the organization had to decline his request to help due to safety precautions, Elkind said that he was struck by the selflessness of the doctor.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu

Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu