Lending a hand in the time of COVID

Rubin Smith ’21 started volunteering at Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) and the Ithaca Free Clinic way before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but he’s continued that work, spending time three days a week helping patients and visitors at both places.

A chemistry major on the premed track, Smith said his volunteer experiences have helped him focus on his motivations for entering medicine, and helped cement the notion that volunteering will always be part of his life as a health care provider.

“I get to interact with a lot of lifelong volunteers — retired people, students, and at the Free Clinic, nurses, nurse practitioners, herbalists and chiropractors,” he said. “A lot of people view volunteering as some type of box you need to check, but I think that volunteering is truly integral to being a physician.”

Coming from an orthodox Jewish family, Smith said community service has always been part of his makeup. So, when he came to Cornell as a sophomore transfer student, he signed up to help with a hunger relief program and ended up working with people at the Salvation Army and Loaves and Fishes in Ithaca, a ministry providing free meals and hospitality for people in need.

Students outside a food bank truck
Rubin Smith, left, worked with fellow Cornell students Juliet Remi, Tom Ho and Kaelyn Gaza, helping address hunger in Tompkins County.
As a junior, Smith started working at CMC and the free clinic, but his roles at those places changed when COVID struck.

Pre-COVID, Smith would visit the clinic in person, helping check in patients, set up rooms and work with guests to their food pharmacy, which provided food and helped people make healthy food choices. Now, he’s helping with the clinic’s telehealth operation, checking in patients online, handling digital information and reminding people of appointments.

At Cayuga Medical, he had been volunteering in the emergency room, but since the spring, he has been helping at the front entrance, screening visitors and patients.

When he’s not volunteering, Smith works in a chemistry lab, practices Chinese and enjoys taking a variety of classes. “I love how A&S lets you study whatever you want,” he said. “I’m a chemistry major, but I love studying things outside of chemistry, taking random classes that I think will be interesting.”

Although many people think students should major in biology or chemistry if they’re interested in medicine, Smith says he sees the value of a broad education.

“My humanities background really helps. For example, my anthropology classes allow me to understand how to view other cultures and reconcile my cultural notions with other people. As an aspiring doctor, it’s important to have that cultural competence.”

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Workers with masks at Cayuga Medical Center