Volunteer Work Gives MSA Students Place to Decompress and Give Back

Group of anesthesiologist assistants volunteering at MedWish

In 2018, following the death of an anesthesia provider and colleague from a drug overdose, Case Western Reserve University Master of Science in Anesthesia alumni Amanda Mohney (‘09) and Brad Wright (‘14) became determined to find a way to create a safe place for MSA students and clinical instructors to go when the program and life get tough.

Addiction is a major issue in the anesthesia workplace. According to a 2008 study completed by Dr. Ethan O. Bryson and Dr. Jeffrey H. Silverstein, between 1991 and 2001, 80% of US anesthesiology residency programs reported experience with impaired residents, and 19% reported as least one pretreatment fatality. These rates have remained constant, and impact not only anesthesiologists and residents but nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologist assistants as well.

“Our small anesthesia community in Cleveland was shaken when we lost our colleague,” Amanda said in a recent interview. “Brad came to me with his concerns, and we both felt compelled to reach out to the students.”

Brad added, “Our goal was to simply be a lifeline to students. We had already been through what they are going through now, and we wanted to provide any needed guidance along the way.”

Together, they came up with a plan to lead volunteer sessions that would give them the opportunity to touch base with the students outside of their clinical rotations and also provide a service to the community.

They ultimately selected MedWish International for these sessions. Founded in 1993 by Dr. Lee Ponsky, MedWish International is a non-profit organization that saves lives and the environment by repurposing discarded medical supplies and equipment to provide humanitarian aid in developing countries. The organization works with local hospital systems and individual donors to collect unused and surplus medical supplies, catalogue and package the supplies, and distribute these supplies to partners in developing countries. If not for MedWish, these supplies would end up in landfills. Last year alone, MedWish diverted nearly 500,000 pounds of medical surplus from landfills to donate over 265,000 pounds of lifesaving medical supplies and equipment to 45 countries in need. MedWish estimates that over one million people around the world benefited from their humanitarian efforts.

Amanda and Brad coordinate volunteer sessions at MedWish’s Midtown headquarters roughly six times a year. “It’s a wonderful organization that is steeped in the medical field. It’s a place where teamwork is important and, most importantly, it gives the students a way to decompress from the program and get to know some instructors outside of the operating room,” Amanda said.

Brad echoed Amanda’s sentiment, adding, “Since we started, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. This has given students an opportunity to blow off some steam from their clinical work, and it has allowed Amanda and I to know them better than we would have just in the operating room. MedWish itself has been a great organization in allowing us to be flexible with our schedule, but also allowing the students to volunteer in multiple phases of the operation.”

The phases of the operation include collecting and accepting the donated supplies, cataloguing and sorting the donations, and packaging them appropriately for shipments. Once packaged, the supplies are loaded onto pallets so that the orders can be fulfilled and sent to partners around the world.

Recent graduate Emily Mycyk ('19) volunteered with Amanda and Brad during her second year, and provided insight into these phases in a recent interview, “MedWish is an incredible organization. When you first volunteer, they show you an educational video with the fundamentals and goals of MedWish, then take you through the entire building to really show you the scope of their operation. It’s inspiring. After that, they usually have large bins for us to sort through, organize and box by item and expiration date. Most of the items that are donated to MedWish are combined into a large pile with a lot of variety, so they need to be individually sorted into like-piles and their expiration dates checked to make sure they are still viable. They have multiple checkpoints along the way to make sure all items that leave MedWish for other countries are in good condition.”

The volunteer sessions are relatively short, and are typically limited to just two hours on a weekday evening so that students can attend after clinicals. Even in that short amount of time, the MSA students are able to achieve amazing results.

“To see the work we can accomplish with the students in two hours is incredible,” Amanda said, “We dig into whatever project the MedWish team has set aside for us, and the time flies. The volunteer coordinators at MedWish know our students pretty well and know that they can throw a variety of tasks at them and they'll tackle it head on. While it's not necessary to have any medical knowledge to volunteer there, the coordinators know that our students come from a medical background and have likely seen some or most of the medical supplies there from their time in the operating room.”

MedWish International has become a significant partner to the MSA Program through Amanda and Brad’s initiative—and has allowed the two to achieve their dual mission of providing a safe space for students to come together to decompress and volunteer their time in a way that positively impacts the local community.

“I love my job as an anesthesiologist assistant, but some days can certainly be tougher and more taxing mentally than others. There are times when I tend to focus on the smaller picture in the operating room.” Emily admitted, adding, “Volunteering at MedWish helps me take a step back and look at a bigger picture, and playing a part in helping people I’ve never met, who don’t have access to equipment we often take for granted, helps me truly appreciate the work I get to do every day and everything I have access to. So many people across the globe die due to preventable illness every year. If we can help “bridge the gap between surplus and scarcity,” as the MedWish process states, is there a more noble cause?”

Amanda and Brad continue to organize volunteer sessions and provide a space for MSA students to come together, decompress, and give back in extraordinary ways.

“I would highly encourage all MSA students to come to MedWish,” Brad noted, “You are giving back to those less fortunate. You get to hang out with your classmates outside of the classroom. You make better connections with your classmates and your preceptors—and it’s a ton of fun!”