Volunteers Come Together to Give Exhausted Siberian Doctors a Lift

Coming down with COVID-19 in Siberia, Russia can be a daunting experience. Nearing 2.5 million confirmed cases and just shy of 45,000 deaths, the country is currently being decimated by a deadly outbreak as facilities are near capacity. Instead of coming to the local hospitals, infectious patients have been advised to stay at home until a doctor can arrange for a house call.

Doctors are being flooded with requests for house calls when there aren’t enough staff or vehicles to go around. To help providers, volunteers started coming together to give doctors rides, despite the inherent health risks. It’s a sweet reminder that people will still look out for each other even when faced with a dangerous crisis.

What It’s Like to Have COVID-19 in Russia

Record-breaking infection rates have put the country’s healthcare system on thin ice.

Vera Klyuyeva, the head of internal medicine at an outpatient clinic in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, told reporters in October, “We have already started to choke, with our doctors making 20-25 house calls a day. They were just falling off their feet.”

At the time, Irkutsk, a city of over 600,000 people, was reporting 80 new cases of the illness each day. By December, the number of daily new infections had reached 270.

As the number of new cases started piling up, patients reported having to wait at home for days until a doctor could care for them in-person.

That’s because physicians at outpatient clinics had been racing from home to home on foot due to a lack of staff and medical vehicles, drastically limiting the number of patients they could see in a single day.

Giving Doctors a Ride

That’s when Vadim Kostenko, a 37-year-old entrepreneur in the area, decided to do something about it. After talking with some medical providers, he realized that doctors would be able to visit 70% more patients if they had someone to drive them, rather than going out on foot.

“People need to get united to resolve the problem with coronavirus,” Kostenko said at the time.

He started turning to companies and friends on Facebook to build a small army of volunteers that were willing to drive doctors around the neighborhood.

Social media has become a place to share his experience, which has helped convince others to join in. In one post, he writes, “I decided to send a car with a driver. Today, for some of the doctors at Irkutsk City Hospital No. 1, work will be a little easier.”

Within just two weeks, he had amassed over 100 volunteers with 22 vehicles. By December, the project had become known as “Let’s Help Doctors Together” with over 3,000 volunteers across ten regions of Russia. In the city of Irkutsk, more than 500 volunteers have helped conduct over 10,000 house calls since October, according to Kostenko.

Some drivers will block off the entire day to drive doctors around, while others will show up for a few hours. People who don’t have cars but want to help have started donating gas money as well.

What About Safety?

As a healthcare worker, having a complete stranger give you a ride in the middle of a pandemic may sound a little insane, but Kostenko says his team works with the hospitals they serve to make sure drivers and staff are taking the necessary safety precautions.

Drivers wear face masks and protective gear while doctors show up wearing hazmat suits as they visit infectious patients in their homes. They will then spray their suits with disinfectant after each house call to avoid passing it on to the driver.

Tatyana Ilyushina, deputy head doctor of the children’s Polyclinic No. 1 in Irkutsk, says she was extremely grateful for the help. “We have separate teams of doctors (treating non-coronavirus patients) and separate teams of doctors serving patients with coronavirus infection, so, of course we need help, including transport.”

As for the volunteers, they’re happy to make a difference and feel useful at the same time.

“Doctors are grateful, of course, and happy to get help. They do need it, because they have been working at such a pace for a long time already,” said volunteer driver Vitaly Tsvetkov.

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