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Hacking solitude, one device at a time

Photo by Robert A. Lisak

By early April, Shannon Stone and Mark Frazee were wondering where they could find cell phones, tablets, and laptops for patients at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven. For several years the VA has had a telehealth program that allows patients to consult with their doctors online. With the spread of coronavirus, however, Stone, a volunteer services specialist, and Frazee, chief of volunteer services, found devices in short supply—and elderly patients without a prior need for or access to technology in dire need.

“With the sudden surge in telehealth going on, we didn’t have enough camera-capable devices to go around and couldn’t get them quick enough,” said Frazee.

Then a phone message arrived from Aakshi Agarwal, a junior at Yale College. Agarwal, along with her friend and classmate, Hannah Verma, and Verma’s brother, Arjun, had launched a non-profit that collects unused electronics gathering dust in closets, basements, and garages and channels them to senior citizens. Agarwal wanted to know if the VA needed any.

“The timing of it was just perfect,” Stone said. So far, she said, she’s received between 12 and 15 devices from Agarwal and more are on the way. She also connected Agarwal with VA facilities throughout New England, who have asked for 560 devices.

The nonprofit, TeleHealth Access for Seniors, started in Orlando, Fla., where Hannah Verma was home after Yale closed its campus due to the coronavirus. Her parents, both doctors, worried that many of their older, high-risk patients didn’t have devices that would let them access their doctors online. Her brother, who’s still in high school, came up with an idea.

“We had a lot of devices at home that were not being used,” he said. “We thought a logical solution was to connect the seniors to these devices by soliciting donations from other people.”

Hannah and Arjun recruited Agarwal, Hannah’s friend and classmate, and their effort has spiraled into a network with 50 volunteers, all college and high school students, active in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

“Originally, although we had wanted it to grow, we started off doing everything ourselves,” Hannah Verma said. “As people trickled in, we would delegate to them. If you have a background in web design, maybe you could build a website, so we don’t have to do that ourselves.”

They started with outreach to medical practices to gauge the need, then asked friends and family to donate unused devices. Posts on social media brought in not only devices, but volunteers. They built a website with guidelines for donating devices, as well as tutorials for setting up phones or tablets and downloading and installing apps. Two coordinators hold weekly meetings with volunteers around the country to check on their progress. So far, the group has delivered about 200 devices.

Most time-consuming has been seeking nonprofit status in 20 states. “None of us have a background in legal issues, so we didn’t realize that expanding would require so much paperwork in every state,” said Hannah Verma.

She and Agarwal had taken a course with a Yale law professor who connected them to a legal group that gave them a one-hour phone tutorial on applying for non-profit status. They started a GoFundMe site and have raised about $4,000 for legal fees and to buy chargers for donated devices. Donations have come from friends, but they’ve also received corporate donations and a grant from Peace First, which supports young people seeking to enact social change.

Donors who contribute the electronics are asked to make sure they’re working and to charge and sanitize the devices according to CDC protocols. That includes isolating the device in a plastic bag for three days. They also check that the device has video and is compatible with applications like Facetime, MyChart, or UpDox. They prefer to have devices shipped to them, but will also do pickups, with appropriate social distancing, like collecting devices from a porch or mailbox. When the devices are ready, they go to a hospital or medical practice for delivery to patients.

Donors, they have found, are often glad to be rid of their devices. “Some people have thanked me for taking the devices because they’re just taking up space,” said Agarwal, who wants to go to law school and work in health policy.

The three founders plan to continue their work even after the coronavirus pandemic.

“The larger trend toward telehealth is definitely a good thing,” said Arjun Verma. “Even after coronavirus ends, there will still be some restrictions on when people can go to the doctor’s office.”

“Doctors have been pushing for telehealth for a while because it is so much more time efficient,” said Hannah Verma, who’s planning a career as a physician. “This has been the push that has shown that telehealth is sustainable, and it can replace a lot of visits and save resources. For the long term we would like to keep on working on this.”