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At at time when she should have been studying abroad at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, 19-year-old Keely Greiner of Guilford is instead serving on the frontlines as a COVID-19 medical volunteer. (Photo courtesy of Keely Greiner )
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After COVID-19 canceled her plans for a college semester of study in Japan, Keely Greiner could have coasted along for a few months until her classes started up again. Instead, the 19-year-old decided to put her emergency medical technician (EMT) license to use, and signed up as a pandemic medical volunteer.
In April, the same month she would have started her UConn studies abroad at Sophia University in Tokyo, Keely instead donned head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE), and was there to greet the first patients arriving to quarantine at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven on opening day. The school gym has been converted to a 50-bed quarantine shelter for homeless people testing positive for COVID-19.
Since then, the Guilford resident has been averaging three days per week, eight hours per shift at the shelter, which is one of five designated emergency shelters in the region. She’s also become very well acquainted with “donning and doffing” PPE.
“We went over donning and doffing really thoroughly a few times before we actually set foot in a contaminated area,” says Keely, adding, “...I think we have better PPE than a few facilities. We have shoe covers, gowns, gloves, masks, and face shields. So I felt pretty safe with the amount of PPE. My only concern was we had a few different types of N95 masks, and fit-testing requirements are waived, so there was no formal fit test. But the face shields really protect us from the harmful droplets.”
As there is an ongoing shortage of N95 respirators, Keely was instructed on how to decontaminate her mask daily, using hydrogen peroxide, so she can reuse it again.
While the shelter was set up to accommodate numerous cases, Keely can report that the number of those who have come to quarantine there has been, thankfully, quite low.
“The gym is full of cots and the facility can hold up to 50 people maximum and 20 more comfortably. On the first day the shelter opened, we got two patients, and it’s kind of fluctuated since then. We’re up to seven right now,” says Keely, noting the shelter is for medical monitoring, not medical care.
“Any patients who need skilled nursing care are going to be in a hospital, not here,” she says. “At least half of the patients we’ve had here were asymptomatic and were in the hospital for something else, but tested positive and had to come to us so we could take care of them during their quarantine period. We hold on to any meds they have, but the patients administer their own meds and keep track of their own dosing. We swab them and send them out when they’re negative.”
Keely says she’s getting a lot out of working alongside other medical volunteers and interacting with the shelter’s assigned medical professionals. The rising UConn junior recently switched from a biology major to an individualized major in health systems and disparities.
“I got to name it myself,” says Keely. “I like to say my major is in public health, with more words.”
Her bachelor’s degree will incorporate studies within the themes of health, science and public health.
Finding a Way to Help
After completing elementary and middle school with Guilford Public Schools, Keely attended Sacred Heart High School. She spent the end of her senior year becoming certified as an EMT.
“I got my EMT certification just as I was graduating high school in 2018,” she says. “Most EMT courses are 180 hours, so that was how I spent the end of my senior year. But I’m glad to have it now, because most programs aren’t certifying new medical professionals right now, so it’s a good certification to have had already.”
After completing the necessary testing, Keely earned her EMT license in 2019 and volunteered with ambulance crews in Durham and Milford in-between attending UConn. Back in March, her mom forwarded Keely an article about the state setting up a COVID-19 web-based medical volunteer management system, CTResponds. As an EMT, Keely met the minimum requirement to sign on as a medical volunteer.
She got online, signed up, and was quickly called up to help at the New Haven shelter.
Keely strongly encourages others with medical-based certifications to volunteer, and also notes civilian volunteers of all ages are needed right now, too.
“I’m 19 and I think people younger than me, and people older than me, could definitely be getting more involved. People can volunteer to do things like grocery deliveries [or to be] administrative staff like we have at the shelter. They’re volunteers [who] don’t have any medical training,” says Keely.
Keely also notes she’s not the youngest volunteer at her location; an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter holds that distinction.
For those with medical training who may hesitate about volunteering, she says that “even though they could risk spreading COVID to other people, if they’re living in a circumstance where they can quarantine if they’re exposed, it would be awesome for them to come out and help.”
All in the Family
Keely’s decision to become an EMT and to serve as a medical volunteer during COVID-19 was not only supported by her parents, but likely inspired by them, as well. Her mom, Jennifer Greiner, is a labor and delivery nurse with Middlesex Health Care system and her dad, Dr. Richard Greiner, is an emergency medicine physician with Yale New Haven Health Care system.
“I grew up in a medical household; both my parents are in the medical field...so it kind of runs in the family, and I’ve always had an interest in medical things ever since I was young,” Keely says. “Because I was always exposed to it, EMT is a good first step for anyone interested in going into the medical field. Whether you want to be a nurse, [physician’s assistant], a doctor, no matter—it’s just a good first exposure.”
Keely is the oldest of four Greiner kids, including brothers Jack and Ryan, both Guilford High School students, and Finn, an elementary schooler. Together with her mom and dad, Keely is gratified to put her skills to work in the medical field to help others during the pandemic.
“My parents are both working directly with patients, so that’s half our family” on the front lines, says Keely. “We’ve got a hamper by the door we all use to doff our scrubs. We’ve just got scrubs drying all over the place, all the time.”
Keely plans to continue to volunteer at the shelter for as long as it’s open, she says. She also recently received some requests to serve as a medical volunteer elsewhere in the state and may reduce her hours in New Haven in order to help out at other locations.
“It depends on where I’m needed most,” says Keely.
As for missing out on her opportunity to study in Japan, where she would have been living from April through August, Keely says this experience has been rewarding in its own way.
“I ended up having ample time to be able to help. Things always work out, I guess,” she says.
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