Noor Shaik felt heartbroken and helpless after talking on the phone with her 83-year-old grandmother in India last month.
“Here I was, enjoying my life and my family in the United States, while over there, everyone was worried about going into lockdown [over the coronavirus],” said Shaik, 27, a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College in Philadelphia.
“In India, the spread of covid-19 right now is so terrible. I just felt really sad,” she said. “I thought about seeing my grandmother when I was young and I cried, wondering whether I’d ever see her again.”
Deaths in India have spiked since February because of a high transmission of virus variants and a lack of vaccines, oxygen and other medical supplies; the country recently recorded more than 4,200 deaths in one day. Since January 2020, there have been more than 24 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus in India and about 270,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
In late April, after learning that the coronavirus crisis in India was becoming more dire by the hour and the death count was growing, Shaik said she turned to her mother in their Bensalem, Pa., home and told her: “We have to do something.”
Shaik never imagined that the comment would lead to a family room full of masks, gowns and medical equipment that will soon be shipped to hospitals in and around Bangalore, an Indian city of more than 8 million where her grandmother and several aunts and uncles live.
That’s what happened after Shaik got the word out — with help from her medical school student adviser at Thomas Jefferson — about her desire to help her relatives and others with no access to vaccines and PPE, more than 8,300 miles across the world.
Wayne Bond Lau, Shaik’s adviser, contacted medical equipment suppliers in the Philadelphia area, and the companies agreed to contribute thousands of N95 masks, hospital gowns, face shields, nasal cannulas and tracheotomy care kits, which are used for critically ill patients on ventilators.
A 900-pound shipment of donated supplies is now on its way to Bangalore, Shaik said, and others will follow as quickly as she and her friends and family can ship them out.
“We didn’t think we’d need to reorganize our house after all of this, but we’re happy to do it,” said Shaik, who is in her last year of medical school and plans to specialize in neurology.
“We’re so lucky to have the vaccine here, and yet it’s appalling that we have so much that it’s being thrown away,” she said. “On the other side of the world, people are dying and trying to get a gasp of air.”
Vaccination numbers in India are discouraging, Shaik said. The United States has fully vaccinated 37.1 percent of the population against the coronavirus, according to a Washington Post analysis, and new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines allow many people to get their lives back to normal. But India has thus far vaccinated less than 3 percent of its population of 1.38 billion.
Shaik said she was 6 when her parents, Nawaz Sheik and Sheema Shah, decided to immigrate with her to the United States in 1999 after her father was transferred for his job.
She still remembers watching her grandmother Fahmida Shah prepare her special chicken korma — a yellow curry dish made with yogurt, cashews, cardamom and other spices.
“Nobody makes it better, not even my mother,” Shaik said. “There was a lot of love at my grandmother’s house. She and my grandfather [now deceased] would show me how to make little pieces of pottery with the clay in back of their house. They would tell me folk tales and braid my hair in this wonderful, loving environment.”
Shaik said that as a child, she called her grandmother Nani Ammi, an endearment in India for “maternal grandmother.” And her grandmother called her Noorian, which means “light of the eye.”
On the day that her extended family saw her and her parents off at the airport for their move to the United States, she said, her grandmother became so emotional that she tripped and fell on the escalator. “It was a very hard day for everyone,” Shaik recalled.
She stayed connected to her Indian roots through twice-monthly talks on the phone with her grandmother — a tradition that continues to this day, she said. “We are very much a part of each other’s lives.”
On the morning of her April 24 phone call with Fahmida, Shaik said she almost burst into tears when her grandmother said: “Hello, my darling granddaughter, how are you?”
“My grandmother is living in a horror movie, with bodies all lined up in a row like the end of days,” she said. “Every 15 minutes, an ambulance is bringing another body to the cemetery, and a silence has descended upon the city. My grandmother said she hasn’t heard a single bird.”
Shaik was also upset by a story she had recently read about a mother in India who was robbed after she lost her son to covid-19 when she couldn’t find a hospital that would take him in.
But after that phone call with her Nani Ammi, Shaik’s mother told her something that hit home: “She said, ‘Are we going to cry about it, or are we going to do something about it?’”
Her mother suggested that she reach out to her student adviser, so Shaik immediately sat down and emailed him, asking if he knew anybody in the medical supply business who could help get donations to her grandmother’s hometown.
Lau told her that he was more than willing to do whatever he could.
“Noor is a motivated, caring student with priorities set in the well-being of her local and global community,” he said. “She is an example for all, to think about others before the self.”
Lau connected Shaik to Anthony Moscatelli, associate vice president of Thomas Jefferson University’s supply chain, and he helped get other medical groups on board with the efforts. The group decided on a name for Shaik’s project: Breath for Humanity. They also started a blog to chronicle the effort.
“I honestly thought we might get a few boxes of supplies to send over and that would be it,” Shaik said.
Instead, she was soon overwhelmed with offers of medical supplies and financial donations.
Shaik’s university dorm room was so full of masks and gowns that she temporarily moved back in with her parents, she said. And within two weeks, her parents’ family room was packed from floor to ceiling, too.
Dimerco Express, an export company in New York, offered to send the first shipment of supplies to Bangalore free, and will charge a reduced rate for sending additional pallets, Shaik said.
“I’m incredibly grateful. It’s been an overwhelming effort,” she said.
But the work is far from over, she added. Shaik said she won’t rest until she knows that her grandmother and others in Bangalore are finally able to receive a lifesaving coronavirus vaccine that many in the United States have access to.
“To actually see my grandmother vaccinated and feel free to move around outside her home again — that is my ultimate goal and dream,” she said.