Two-hundred and fifty swabs. That’s how many COVID-19 tests Avodah alumna and medical student, Tal Lee, and a small team of doctors, nurses, and fellow medical students conducted in a single day during a recent swab drive within a North Philadelphia church parking lot.
It was one of several swab drives led by the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, formed by Dr. Ala Stanford, the first African-American female pediatric surgeon trained entirely in the U.S. Dr. Stanford created the Consortium to address the health inequities and testing shortages she saw in the majority African-American neighborhoods of West and North Philadelphia.
When Tal, a fourth-year medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, saw an email come across her screen asking for student volunteers to help the Consortium, she thought back to her time in Avodah with Project Renewal, providing healthcare to people in shelters and conducting street outreach in the organization’s mobile medical van.
Despite the high risk of coronavirus exposure, Tal remembered the deep impact her work made on communities she served. After speaking with her sister, who had encouraged her to join Avodah, Tal made the hard decision to step up, suit up, and swab.
Pictured below: Avodah alumna Tal Lee, right, assists Dr. Ala Stanford, as she prepares to administer a COVID-19 swab test on a person in the parking lot of Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Stanford and other doctors formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to offer testing and help address heath disparities in the African American community. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
“[My sister and I] talked about living your values and being true to your beliefs. For me, what that looks like, and what I have always wanted to do, is work with under-served communities. I think that means going out in the time of need when these communities are forgotten about. This is the time when you have to step up if you have skills that are helpful. I thought back to my Avodah days and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I thought, this is my purpose,” Tal said.
The swab drives mainly take place at large churches, which have historically been spaces for organizing efforts and where clergy have established trust within the community. Hundreds of cars pack the parking lots with lines around several blocks as people wait for tests. The cars are often not just filled with individuals, but entire families including children, grandparents, and other family members. The sites include drive-through and walk-up testing for those without cars, giving people access to tests who would otherwise go ignored.
Volunteering alongside Dr. Stanford, Tal is responsible for speaking with patients, taking a history of their symptoms, preparing the swabs and storing the collected specimens. But the work doesn’t stop there, she said.
“That’s what’s so special about this project. It would kind of be band-aid work to just swab. Because of systemic racism, high costs, and health inequalities, a lot of these folks don’t have primary care doctors. They don’t have an OBGYN or even someone to go to if they have a cough or a cold. So, with Dr. Stanford and her team, we make sure that they have access to everything they need,” she said. “Testing is just the cusp and I think the Black Doctors Consortium really addresses more than COVID-19. They’re addressing deep and entrenched structural inequalities in the healthcare system on a very grassroots level.”
Given the severity of the coronavirus, Tal said being a medical provider on the front lines can be scary. Among the 250 people she and her team tested in a single day, 120 people tested positive, the youngest being 14 years old. Knowing the risk factors, Tal said she is balancing her personal health and mental well-being with her belief system and desire to work with populations who would otherwise go uncounted.
“Sometimes, I am genuinely terrified, especially when going up to the window of someone coughing or experiencing symptoms, but it’s rewarding because you see these people with their families and you know that test could save that whole family from getting COVID-19. I feel pride in the fact that these people are coming out to know if they’re positive – to get that knowledge, protect themselves, and protect their families and communities. Knowledge is power and when communities don’t have access to testing, that’s withholding that power from people to protect themselves and others.”
Tal has stepped up to help others through this crisis in many ways. She has been working with the Philadelphia Medical Reserves and volunteering with Rabbi Michael Pollack to help organize multi-faith outreach and meal delivery to elderly and disabled patients in West Philadelphia. She is also an organizer with Medical Students for Choice, where she puts her passion for female reproductive rights into action.
(Pictured: Avodah alumna Tal Lee volunteering alongside Nurse Michelle with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in North Philadelphia. Photo by Tal Lee.)
In June, Tal will start an OBGYN residency at Lankenau Medical Center, which is located just outside of Philadelphia.
“Avodah was a very big turning point for me in showing me that I have to act on my views going into this profession. Avodah gave me strength and knowledge to organize,” she said.
Four years after completing her service year, Tal continues to foster relationships within the Avodah community, attending virtual Shabbat dinners with fellow alumni and interviewing applicants to the Jewish Service Corps.
To protect medical students, like Tal, working on the frontlines of COVID-19, you can make a donation to Medical Students for Masks to help supply gowns, gloves, and PPE supplies. To support Avodah Jewish Service Corps Members who are providing critical capacity to nonprofit partners of Avodah, you can click here to make a donation to Avodah.