ICU doctor finds time to create, donate wellness bags for health workers

Natasha Roy

After working 27-hour shifts in the intensive care unit of the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Gayatri Malhotra-Gupta can feel burnt out. But when she returns to her home in Queens, she gets right to work on her project: creating 750 wellness bags for health care professionals across New York City.

The 28-year-old third-year internal medicine resident has been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, treating people with COVID-19 at Brooklyn VA Medical Center. She also rotates at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Kings County Hospital Center.

Gayatri Malhotra-Gupta decided to create and deliver wellness bags to health care workers across New York City as a thank you for their work. (Courtesy Gayatri Malhotra-Gupta)

Malhotra-Gupta said her days are challenging in part because the hospital system wasn’t prepared for something of this magnitude.

“The system was just not equipped to handle the sudden demand, which is why I think that there was such a big stress placed on our health care system in general,” Malhotra-Gupta said.

When she saw that her colleagues were also facing burnout, she decided to begin her wellness bags project as a thank-you to fellow health care workers.

“We are creating wellness bags to remind health care workers that, you know, yes, they're treating people, but it's also important to take care of themselves,” Malhotra-Gupta said.

Global Physicians Network Foundation volunteers deliver wellness bags to the Lincoln Medical Center. (Courtesy Gayatri Malhotra-Gupta)

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Malhotra-Gupta is part of the Global Physicians Network Foundation, a nonprofit that brings health care initiatives to local communities. Through it, she launched a GoFundMe to raise money for self-care items to put in the bags. Companies such as Innisfree, L’Occitane and DKR sent sheet masks, hand lotion and water bottles, as well.

She and other GPNF members are packing the bags and delivering them to hospitals in every borough. So far, they have been able to deliver more than 500 to 12 hospitals, including Flushing Hospital Medical Center in Queens, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan and Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx. She’s expecting to finish delivering all 750 bags by the end of next week.

“That's really been a way that I've been staying positive, and [it] gives me something to look forward to at the end of my 27-hour shift,” Malhotra-Gupta said.

She also finds motivation in her own community.

She was born and raised in Queens and lives with her single mother. Her grandparents, who live just across the street, are anxious for her and pray every day. Malhotra-Gupta said she is worried about exposing her family to the virus — and she’s not the only one. She said her colleagues are scared because the virus is so new.

“There’s a lot of fear of the unknown,” she said.

Malhotra-Gupta herself is of Indian descent and described her Queens community as “a big melting pot,” with people of different backgrounds and cultures. She said her upbringing shaped her medical career.

“I think that a lot of times, in my practice — given what my family background is — I'm always considering social determinants of health,” Malhotra-Gupta said. “Because that really played a role in what my family went through when I was younger, the fact that a lot of people in Queens are immigrants and don't have the best access to care.”

She said it’s important to recognize that communities that have been historically underserved tend to be harder hit by health issues in general. African American communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York City, Latinos make up the highest proportion of people dying from COVID-19.

“We need to actually focus on why some of these communities have gotten hit harder than other communities and to fix the underlying health issue, to fix underlying social issues in these communities, to give better access to care to communities that have gotten hit harder,” Malhotra-Gupta said. “Because this is not a COVID-specific issue for them.”

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She emphasized that her background helps her keep social determinants of health in mind when assessing who her patients are. She pointed out that people of a lower socioeconomic status may not have the ability to work from home or practice social distancing, depending on what their jobs entail.

“I think that it's just really important for us to keep that in mind, that, you know, there's a lot of talk right now about health care heroes,” Malhotra-Gupta said. “I think it's just important to remember that, you know, a lot of our patients that are dealing with COVID are also at risk because they're doing essential work.”

Malhotra-Gupta wants to keep staying positive, even while working in one of the country’s hardest-hit places. She said New York’s displays of solidarity — from the 7 p.m. cheers to donations for her wellness bags — have played a big role in motivating her to keep going into work.

“I think that the sense of community in New York is what's going to help us get through this really tough time together,” Malhotra-Gupta said.