As COVID-19 emerged throughout communities in New Jersey, a group of students in Summit dedicated to exploring ethical issues within society found the opportunity to put their learnings into action, with the help of medical ethics experts at Atlantic Health System.

When the health system, a longtime advisor to The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, identified individuals in the intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) community and their caregivers as a vulnerable population, the Kent Place students at the institute began an initiative that ultimately provided more than 400 homemade protective masks, 100 face shields, 1,000 surgical masks and 100 other protective masks to residents and caregivers in group homes, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes in seven northern New Jersey counties.

“This project allowed our students to live their values,” says Karen Rezach, EdD, founding director of the Ethics Institute and a member of the Ethics Committee at Overlook Medical Center. “Having a chance to make an impact meant the world to us.”

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Identifying the need

The roots of the project stemmed from a discussion among the Atlantic Health System Covid-19 Ethics Oversight Committee. “We identified people in the IDD community, including people with Down syndrome, as a potentially vulnerable population,” says Yvette Vieira, manager of bioethics and palliative care at the health system. Many IDD community members receive care from direct service providers in group homes, or from family members at private homes.

“The expectation was for people in the IDD community to shelter in place if they got COVID-19, but the lack of PPE exposed them and their caregivers,” says Megan MacMullin, chief executive officer of SCARC Guardianship, which provides guardian services to IDD community members in northern New Jersey.

To help, the task force turned to Kent Place School, a K-12 private school which has partnered with Atlantic Health for more than a decade to teach ethics to its students. The task force connected Kent Place School in Summit with the health system’s Disability Clinic Physicians in Union Township who recognized that many of the home health aides who care for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in congregate living facilities may be in need of personal protective equipment (PPE), potentially leaving them at risk of being infected as well as spreading it to others.

On March 30, about 20 students from the school’s sports teams agreed to donate their time to sew protective masks.

Task force member Lisa Goldman gathered donated materials from local vendors and drove them to students’ homes. She also picked up the completed PPE so it could be distributed to guardians and group homes by the SCARC Guardianship and the New Jersey Bureau of Guardianship Services.

“I felt like an air traffic controller,” says Jeanne Kerwin, consultant for bioethics and palliative care at Atlantic Health System, who coordinated the distribution.

Students stepping up

Kent Place senior Adithi Jayaraman, 17, of Livingston, N.J., a swimmer at the school, was one of the first to volunteer to sew masks. “But she forgot to tell them we don’t have a sewing machine,” jokes her mom, Sai.

Mom and daughter chose to sew masks by hand. “It was a good bonding experience,” says Sai. “It was our way of saying thank you to people you see on the news who are doing all they can to save lives.”

Kent Place junior Tanmayee Talla, 17, of Green Brook Township, N.J., took a different approach. She and her father, Sri, a local pharmacist with access to PPE, coordinated the donation of protective masks, 3-D printed face shields and surgical masks.

“Jeanne explained how people in the IDD community are sometimes overlooked, and it inspired me,” Tanmayee said.

To Kerwin, the Kent Place students are the ones who deserve all the credit. “They are some of the many unspoken heroes of this pandemic,” she says.

About Atlantic Health System

Atlantic Health System has a long-standing tradition of providing exceptional patient outcomes and experiences. Home to seven award-winning hospitals including Morristown Medical Center, the number one hospital in NJ according to U.S. News & World Report, Castle Connolly and Newsweek’s World’s Best Hospitals, the system has been ranked first in New Jersey in consumer preference by Monigle and first among health systems in New Jersey as a “best workplace” by both Modern Healthcare and Fortune Magazine.

Many of the system’s programs have received national accolades and designations, including Morristown Medical Center’s Cardiology and Heart Surgery program ranked among the top 30 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report; Morristown Medical Center’s Orthopedics program ranked among the top 35 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Health System’s Cancer Care program, New Jersey’s first and only National Cancer Institute National Community Oncology Research Program. Additionally, Atlantic Health System Neuroscience at Overlook Medical Center, working with Atlantic Mobile Health, was the first in the nation to deploy and use portable Telestroke technology in ambulances for routine pre-hospital assessment of stroke patients.

Powered by a passionate workforce of 17,000 team members and 4,800 affiliated physicians dedicated to building healthier communities, Atlantic Health System serves more than half of the state of New Jersey, including 11 counties and 4.9 million people. The system provides care for the full continuum of health needs across a wide array of settings, including Atlantic Medical Group, one of the largest multi-specialty practices in New Jersey with more than 1,000 physicians and providers, 12 urgent care centers, Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, Atlantic Visiting Nurse and Atlantic Anywhere’s Virtual Visits. Facilitating connections between these services on both land and air is the transportation fleet of Atlantic Mobile Health.

With a clear sense of purpose and an unparalleled culture, Atlantic Health System attracts top leaders in the field of health care, from CEO Brian Gragnolati, who was Chairman of the American Hospital Association in 2019, to the numerous team members who serve as leaders across national clinical associations and research entities.