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COVID-19 UPDATE: Northern Ontario students addressing the unique need of their region

Sarah Mavin was preparing to go back to med school after her maternity leave when suddenly the whole world stopped. Like many of us, she found herself filled with anxiety about the global pandemic and what impacts it would have—not just on her medical education, but, being married to a front line healthcare worker, her day-to-day life as well. It’s no surprise that one of the things that concerned her most was the shortage of PPE, particularly in the region where they live.

Unlike other parts of the country where medical students were running PPE drives, NOSM students had not yet started a northern Ontario-wide drive yet and wanted to coordinate existing community efforts. So, Sarah connected with Alannah MacLean to see what they could accomplish together. Even though they’d never met, they clicked right from the start. “The campaign kicked off within a couple hours,” Sarah explains. “We created a needs assessment, an organizational chart, donor forms…we worked around the clock to bring this to life as quickly as possible. That immediate sense of partnership and collegiality made me feel that we could actually make this thing happen—and make a big difference.” With this partnership, the northern Ontario PPE for HCP campaign was created.

“Unlike other initiatives in other places, we needed to start with a needs assessment,” says Alannah. “We weren’t focused on one city, but rather all of northern Ontario, between 40 to 50 different communities. We divided that area of focus into 8 different regions and created teams that would be responsible for each of them.”

Because they sought, from the start, to identify what was really needed, their program evolved quickly; their needs assessments revealed that 80-percent of the respondents specifically needed face shields, which suggested that manufacturing – alongside traditional donations – might be the best answer.  “We are trying to meet a specific goal: to help facilities who may run out of PPE bridge the gap until their next shipment comes in from their regular supply chain”.

The group partnered with other initiatives, including the Queens 3D-printing initiative, who became mentors for them. They created a manufacturing team and approached a group of engineers through the research lab at Lakehead University, who, in turn, connected them with makerspaces. “We didn’t know anything about 3D-printing, but we knew about the needs out there—so how can we work together to make that happen?” Soon they had more than a hundred volunteers ready to go—not just medical students, but from many allied health professions. “In a crisis, so many people want to reach out and help, but when there are so many separate initiatives it actually becomes very difficult. We figured if we could concentrate everyone’s efforts and handle the distribution, then all we needed to do was figure out the best possible system to distribute materials.”

“All of this,” Alannah says, “is only possible because we’re working from home. If I was working in clinic, it wouldn’t be possible—but learning from home actually helps to accommodate all the extra work.” Still, after more than a month of focusing on this initiative, it’s time for both to catch up on school. “It's starting to catch up to me and is becoming a bit more stressful.”

Balancing academics and community engagement is an important aspect of becoming a physician. Alannah and Sarah both say that the experience has been more than worth it. The way it has come together has been very humbling. “One thing we've learned is that when you're a grassroots movement you can move things very quickly and move fast, but this comes at a cost because we are learning every day—luckily, we have each other. We’re able to deal with this uncertainty, and talk this through, and keep things moving forward. We have to, because we've just cracked the surface. Our requests still outweigh the donations.”

There are many ways to get involved in this initiative:

If you are a facility in northern Ontario that is in need, please consider submitting a needs assessment, which will also include direction for registering to receive free face shields and ear savers. 


onboardMD Team

The onboardMD team brings you news, insights and real-life stories from students, residents and doctors, just like you. Our staff writers aim to provide you with the inspiration and confidence to seek and deliver on the best version of you, keeping you on the right track and making good choices for your future in medicine. Have a story to share? Email us at