‘No better antidote to anxiety than doing something’: Meet the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers fighting coronavirus

The corps’ 3,200-plus members are medical and nonmedical volunteers deployed by the city to assist during major emergencies.

Elise Aminah Dorr-Dorynek is a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer of almost 20 years. She talked to press Thursday about what it’s like to administer COVID-19 testing. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Elise Aminah Dorr-Dorynek is a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer of almost 20 years. She talked to press Thursday about what it’s like to administer COVID-19 testing. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Elise Dorr-Dorynek is dealing with a lot of anxiety right now.

She works as a nurse at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, one of many hospitals across the metro area scrambling to prepare for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases. She worries about getting sick, and worries even more about infecting her husband, who lives with a spinal cord injury.

Still, between her shifts, Dorr-Dorynek, 52, finds solace by heading back to the front line —- by volunteering with the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps as a specimen collector at the South Philadelphia drive-through coronavirus testing site.

“I think there is no better antidote to anxiety than doing something, and helping other people,” she said. “If you are at home, you are just pacing around … when you are doing something, you feel so much better.”

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She is one of the more than 3,200 volunteers who make up the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps. Formed in 2005, the group of medical and nonmedical volunteers is deployed by the city’s Department of Public Health to assist during major emergencies. Now, Reserve Corps volunteers make up the majority of the workforce at the South Philadelphia testing site, with 45 group members paired with just five Philadelphia Department of Public Health staffers on a given shift.

Dorr-Dorynek has been with the corps since shortly after it was formed. The coronavirus is a unique challenge for the group — it’s never provided mass testing before — but she said she’s confident its members will rise to the challenge.

“We’ve done lots of mass things, like we’ve done mass flu vaccinations and practiced distributing medicine to large [groups], and we were here setting up field hospitals for when the Pope was here,” Dorr-Dorynek said. “All the experiences I’ve had and learned throughout the Medical Reserve Corps have all come together to prepare me for this.”

John Muccitelli, 67, also volunteers as a specimen collector. The longtime Medical Corps volunteer normally works as a home-care nurse for the elderly in South Philadelphia, but he recently took a leave of absence to be able to spend more time at the testing site.

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“What else is there to do right now?” he asked.

In addition to collecting specimens, Medical Corps volunteers like Muccitelli often pull double duty as counselors, soothing the frayed nerves of those waiting to get tested through protective masks and face shields.

“People are a little anxious,” he said. “But people are very grateful we are here offering services.”

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, Philadelphia may begin to lean even more heavily on the Medical Reserve Corps. James Garrow, the city Health Department representative, said the group is actively recruiting volunteers. Anyone over 18 can apply online.

“I think it’s important to realize that as people get sick from this, people in the Medical Reserve Corps will get sick as well,” Garrow said. “So it’s important to have people to [fill] that line.”

Garrow said the Reserve Corps currently had about 500 pending applications. He didn’t give specifics about possible future duties for the volunteer group, saying the city would take things day by day.

Muccitelli said he knows it’s possible that he or his wife, a critical care nurse, could contract COVID-19. But he isn’t dwelling on it.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “We’re too busy right now to worry about that.”

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