When COVID-19 started to spread in the United States, siblings Karen Tsai, MD ’17 and Kevin Tsai, MD ‘19 leapt into action. Both graduates of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, the young doctors knew they wanted to help their former colleagues and teachers on the frontline at Stony Brook University Hospital. Their donation of face masks to the University in March was just the beginning of their mission to help essential workers in hospitals across the United States. Through their organization DonatePPE.org, which Karen co-founded, more than 1.2 million PPE has been donated to hospitals in COVID hotspots such as New York City, the Bay area, Southern California, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago and Boston to date.
The idea for the organization started with automated driving engineer Deyu Kong, an acquaintance of Karen’s who was closely following the news about the struggles healthcare workers were facing as COVID-19 surged in their countries. Kong, as a resident of California, knew that because of the constant forest fires, many people had N95s masks reserved in their homes, and that construction companies, dentists and other businesses also had PPE that would be much more useful in the hands of doctors and nurses on the frontlines of this crisis. The question was how to get those masks into the right hands.
Kong reached out to Karen, an internal medicine resident in Los Angeles, for her insight as a medical professional and input in creating a website to encourage donations and facilitate the placement of PPE to those who most desperately needed it. In one day, they pulled the site together and DonatePPE.org launched on March 19. In its first two weeks, with help from Karen’s network of medical colleagues, the site connected hospitals with an estimated 100,000 articles of PPE, including N95 respirators, surgical masks, face shields, gowns, shoe covers and goggles.
The DonatePPE.org team quickly grew to more than 30 volunteers ranging from web developers to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. One of those volunteers who joined the leadership team early on was Karen’s brother, Kevin, an anesthesiology resident at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Kevin helps operate the website, writes news articles about incoming donations and ongoing collaborations with PPE producers and sponsors, and provides unique insight from the anesthesiology/airway perspective. Together outside their work-hours, the Tsai siblings are making calls, directing shipments, and sourcing PPE vendors, all while driving and delivering PPE to hospitals across Los Angeles.
Going the extra mile to help others is not new to the Tsai siblings. As part of the founding class of the Phi Delta Epsilon chapter at Stony Brook Medicine, Kevin worked with classmates in a variety of community outreach and fundraising events, ranging from an annual Jeopardy tournament to fundraise for the medical school’s free community clinic SBHOME, to building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Karen, a recipient of the Gold Humanism Award, volunteered in the NYU Winthrop Hospital free clinic during her time as a medical student. “Through those [endeavors],” said Kevin, “it was obvious how even a few sets of hands can make a huge impact. What we are seeing now is an extraordinary demonstration of what people can do when we organize in the midst of terrible adversity. Every person that’s reaching back to help us in the medical field really is protecting healthcare workers’ lives and helping fight the pandemic as well.”
Karen and Kevin and their fellow volunteers are continuing to work to procure more PPE to get out to the many areas in the U.S. still in need. At the same time, as physicians in hospitals with COVID patients, they face the same dangers as the people they are helping to protect.
“We’ve minimized face-to-face contact with our family and friends, practice social distancing and eat meals alone, and now at a minimum wear a mask wherever we go — in the hospital, grocery store, or at home around family alike,” Karen explained. “But we’re far from discouraged: the constant outpouring of love and generosity from the community has been endless, and we know that it is present across the country. It just takes a little direction and a common goal to get this outreach to our healthcare frontlines.”
In addition to their website and their Instagram (@DonatePPE), the organization is coming up with more ways to reach different audiences to spread awareness of the ongoing COVID situation. “We launched a new interactive art project on May 2 with Guy Gilchrist, world-renown illustrator best known as Jim Henson’s cartoonist and for his art of The Muppets. We post downloadable coloring pages, sketches and comic strips depicting both iconic and original characters straight from the drawing table of Guy Gilchrist to engage children and families through art during these difficult times,” Karen explained. “We also launched a campaign, Our Strength is Our Beauty, on International Nurses Day on May 12 to highlight the beauty in strength of individual healthcare workers around the world fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines.”
“It’s so inspiring to see our alumni doing all they can to make a real difference in the world,” said Matthew Colson, Executive Director, Alumni Relations. “Karen and Kevin truly exemplify the Seawolves spirit and we are so thankful to them and their organization for their hard work and dedication to helping others and for thinking of Stony Brook, their Alma Mater.”
If you are interested in learning more or would like to donate, please visit DonatePPE.org.
Recently, Karen collaborated with Guy Gilchrist to create Monster Dance, a storybook intended to inform, educate, and empower children during the pandemic. Proceeds from sales will be donated to the PPE initiative.
Additionally, on Spetember 30, 2020,the Tsaai siblings served as presenters for the Emmy Awards in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
— Shelley Catalano
All photos courtesy Karen Tsai/DonatePPE.org