When a Pandemic Hit, These Wentworth Students Took to the Front Lines to Help

April 28, 2020

Jake Girard '21 stands with a mechanical ventilator while on co-op at Massachusetts General Hospital.

By Greg Abazorius

The severity of the Coronavirus outbreak hit Jake Girard hard.

“I saw a seemingly young Covid-19 positive patient, through a glass door, attached to a ventilator that I had just set up in the room earlier that day,” says Girard, Biomedical Engineering ’21.

He suddenly found himself equipping new areas of the hospital to be used as intensive care units for patients who could not breathe on their own.

Girard has been working at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) as a perioperative clinical engineering co-op for the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine. His day-to-day included providing engineering and technical support, testing and repairing medical devices, as well as educating medical staff on theory of operation. Then MGH announced that they had their first patient with the virus under intensive care in March.

“I help to prepare, deploy and utilize our current anesthesia machines as ventilators, connect the ventilators to our remote alarm system, equip rooms with clinical computing hubs that collect data to be used for research, et cetera,” says Girard.

Molly Donahue and Ally Rodriguez have also been working at MGH since January. As clinical engineer co-ops, the two were mainly tasked with inspecting and deploying 3,000 infusion pumps that the hospital had purchased prior to the outbreak. The pumps—which help deliver medication and nutrients to patients—arrived in batches of 500 at a time and the Wentworth students were nearing the end before they would be assigned to a new role.

“I think we only had two weeks left of pump work when the virus began to hit the U.S. and MGH,” says Rodriguez, Biomedical Engineering ’21.

The co-ops would correct the alarm volume on the machines, match up serial numbers, update the MGH drug library and enter the infusion pumps into a database. “After things ramped up with Coronavirus, Ally and I started helping to configure the pumps, going to the next step after inspection. That wasn’t supposed to happen for another month, so we had to speed,” says Donahue, Biomedical Engineering ’21.

The timing of the new pumps was welcome news for MGH and the various off-site hospitals within its network, but slight variations in the new equipment meant that nurses would normally be pulled off the floor to be trained. That was not possible right now.

“We had to just jump in with the nurses and all learn really fast,” says Donahue.

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For Donahue, the threat of infection is especially personal. Her mother is a nurse at the hospital, while her father is a police officer, both risking exposure to the virus on a regular basis. Donahue also has asthma.

“At first it felt like a bad dream. I think everyone goes through that phase,” she says. Donahue began hearing concerns from her mother early on and then started to read more in the news.

“I did take it seriously at the beginning,” she says, but also notes that conflicting reports made it initially sound similar to the common cold or that it only affected the elderly. She quickly saw how widespread it became.

“The beginning of the outbreak felt surreal to me,” says Girard, noting that his daily routine has shifted to include filling out a physical self-evaluation, applying hand sanitizer and putting on a mask. “I knew it was likely that I could contract the virus, but I always knew I was doing the right thing.”

Wentworth offered all students the chance to end their co-ops early due to the pandemic, but Rodriguez says that was never a thought for her. Since she was a child, she wanted to work in a hospital environment, and she was fulfilled by the first-hand knowledge she was receiving.

“I also wouldn’t have felt right with myself if I left the pumps project since Molly and I were the main two people working on them,” she says. “I thought if we didn’t finish them, it would come down on an engineer or technician who is already insanely busy with other projects and figuring out how to get things done as patients come in quickly.”

MGH has been issuing regular health-related assessments and preventing almost all visitors to the hospital in an effort to keep staff and patients safe. A new intensive care unit specifically for Covid-19 patients was also established.

“After I got used to the masks and the health evaluations began, it was like I was going through airport security every day,” says Rodriguez. A floor that she worked on was transformed into one aimed specifically at treating Covid-19 patients before she wrapped up her co-op in April. “The last month of my co-op was so surreal, going from entering the most high-risk area to having to move off campus and change my commute and daily routine to make sure I was staying safe and keeping everyone I came in contact with safe, too.”


Ally Rodriguez '21 (left) and Molly Donahue '21


Interns and co-ops might often be considered non-essential during such a time, says Rodriguez, but the skill sets she, Donahue and Girard brought to the table were deemed necessary for this crisis. Girard is about to officially wrap up his co-op, but he will work part-time at MGH through the summer while also taking classes. Donahue and Rodriguez have also been asked to return part-time in the summer.  

“It’s a bit of a stressful environment, but everybody’s handling it well,” Girard says. “I’m grateful for all of my co-workers and medical staff for helping to fight this tremendous pandemic.”

Donahue adds that their behavior is not necessarily unique at Wentworth. When Sage Williams, Biomedical Engineering ’21, had to end a manufacturing technician co-op early this year, she traveled home to go back to work for her previous co-op employer, Central Maine Medical Center, helping to repair medical devices. Cassidy Hayes, Biological Engineering ’21, will continue her patient care technician co-op with AtlantiCare in New Jersey as a part-time position this summer.

“I think if you go to Wentworth, you have a certain dedication or drive,” says Donahue. “I think Wentworth students have a certain call.”

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