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When Dr. Julie Byerley, Vice Dean for Education, saw how hard Hurricane Florence hit Wilmington, North Carolina, she immediately thought of the students and faculty at UNC School of Medicine’s branch campus at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC). She reached out to Dr. Joe Pino, the Associate Dean who oversees all educational programming at the NHRMC campus, and asked how UNC School of Medicine could help in the recovery. Dr. Pino shared that NHRMC was already at capacity in advance of the storm, and his associate Dr. Amy Messier was setting up a skilled nursing shelter at Codington Elementary School. They needed all hands on deck to staff the shelter.

Group of Six UNC Med Students Volunteering
UNC Med students volunteering at an elementary school turned skilled nursing shelter for those displaced by Hurricane Florence.

Dean Byerley sent an email to fourth year medical students that afternoon asking for volunteers willing to leave that day to help staff the shelter. She received an “overwhelming” response back from these fourth-year students: 23 students responded within hours that they were ready and able to travel to Wilmington to staff the shelter. Of the volunteers, six made the treacherous drive down to Wilmington the next morning, prepared to stay for a week.

The six students worked 12-hour shifts at the Codington Elementary shelter, serving Wilmington residents with medically complex conditions. Dr. Pino describes the students’ commitment to serving those displaced by Hurricane Florence saying, “They tirelessly supported their care while making personal connections with those they were serving.”

Cathrine Hundley, RN managed the daily operations of the shelter, and felt the experience was about community—people coming together to support those in need. She says, “The teamwork, compassion, dedication, love, and commitment was beyond anything I have ever witnessed. Job titles meant nothing. We were all in it together and did anything needed or asked of us.” Community was also top of mind for medical student Ying-Ao Zhang, one of the six students who traveled to Wilmington. He reflects, “It was amazing to be part of the care team that so naturally and willingly came together to help out our community in a time of need. I still feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of something so unique and eye-opening; I’ll definitely remember this experience and continue to draw from it for the rest of my career.”

This partnership with New Hanover Regional Medical Center and the student response to support North Carolinians in need is just one example of the way in which UNC School of Medicine fulfills its statewide mission. For Dean Byerley, “One of things that is so special about UNC School of Medicine is its state-wide mission. This effort was just one example of the way in which having multiple campuses and community relationships across the state help us fulfill this mission.”

“We are so thankful that Dr. Byerley and Dr. Pino gave us the opportunity to volunteer in Wilmington. It was truly an unforgettable experience. While we worked to coordinate medications, oxygen requirements, and dialysis schedules, we learned that helping to provide small comforts such as showers, hot meals, and time to talk to patients was just as important. One day Vigilant Hope, a local non-profit, brought their trailer with showers to the center and patients were able to take a shower for the first time in many days. The rejuvenation among the patients that evening was palpable. The stories we heard from the patients will stick with us forever. We are grateful that the NHRMC community allowed us to be part of an experience that we will never forget.”

– Louisa Mounsey, UNC Medical Student

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