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Faculty and Staff Donate Equipment to Alumni on COVID-19 Front Lines

Liliya Yatsunyk and Melanie Leeds pose with car trunk full of PPE

Liliya Yatsunyk (left) and Melanie Leeds are part of a wider effort by staff and faculty members from across Swarthmore to get personal protective equipment (PPE) into the hands of medical professionals in recent weeks.

Melanie Leeds had a simple but strong motivation to gather and donate medical supplies for the COVID-19 fight: Her close friend, hospitalist Farah Hussain ’09, had been worrying about the safety of colleagues on the front lines in Philadelphia.

“When she needs help, I help,” says Leeds, production stage manager in the Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC). “Farah and her friends and colleagues are saving lives. … I can pick up some gloves on campus.”

A few days later, Leeds tightly packed her Prius — to the point of tripping the passenger-side seatbelt alarm — and set off for Center City to greet her friend.

“Knowing that I helped in some small way is a good feeling,” says Leeds. “But knowing that I helped Farah is irreplaceable.”

Leeds is part of a wider effort by staff and faculty members from across Swarthmore to get personal protective equipment (PPE) into the hands of medical professionals in recent weeks. They responded to requests for help from Hussain, an assistant professor of clinical medicine for Penn Medicine, and Joe Corcoran ’16, a medical student at Temple University.

Nick Kaplinsky, associate professor and chair of biology, put out a call to peers in biology, chemistry, psychology, engineering, and physics. With Swarthmore continuing with virtual learning for the rest of the academic year, he notes, the departments’ PPE was much more urgently needed by medical personnel.

Joe Corcoran ’16 (right), a medical student at Temple University, reached out to Swarthmore and received help after Nick Kaplinsky, associate professor and chair of biology, put out a call to peers in biology, chemistry, psychology, engineering, and physics.

So the faculty and staff from those departments “scoured research and teaching labs for anything useful,” says Kaplinsky. That yielded three packed car loads of gloves, masks, Kevlar jumpsuits, goggles, disinfecting solutions, and more.

“Hopefully, this will make some kind of a difference,” he says, praising the direct involvement of Liliya Yatsunyk, associate professor and chair of chemistry, and the connection to Hussain made by Elizabeth Vallen, the Howard A. Schneiderman Professor of Biology.

Meanwhile, Environmental Health & Safety Officer Jinny Schiffer is directing the disbursement of the office’s long-held stockpile of N95 filtering-facepiece respirators. She has donated more than 500 thus far: 240 each to the Swarthmore Fire Department’s ambulance service and to Crozer Chester Medical Center, and 20 to Kaplinsky’s collection.

Schiffer hopes to donate more N95s, but cited the need to keep enough for people on campus, including the staff of Worth Health Center and Public Safety, who need protection from COVID-19.

Also joining the wider campus effort was Rhonda Hilt, greenhouse manager for Martin Hall and Singer Hall, whom Kaplinsky recruited. She was delighted to learn that while the greenhouse PPE is neither sterile nor new, it is still usable, and she began collecting N95s and other PPE to send along.

Hilt also donated a self-contained respirator, which resembles a space-suit helmet, from her time at the Mt. Cuba Center, a nonprofit botanical garden near Wilmington, Del.

“It’s humbling to know that, through the combined effort of two greenhouses, we were able to assist [Corcoran] in supplying urgently needed PPE to Temple University Hospital,” Hilt says.

“These donations are about hope,” she adds. “The combined action of people working together to gather needed supplies, in turn producing a positive outcome for the future, is, in essence, hope. Our wish is that this small donation will show how much we appreciate and value the brave people doing this vital work for the greater good.”

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