On a sunny day last September, 20-year-old Haripriya Dukkipati walked into Duke’s emergency room for her first volunteer shift. The day started off slow. She and another student volunteer approached some patients and introduced themselves.
Then they asked whether the patients would like to be screened for any “unmet social needs,” namely: did the patients have enough to eat? Somewhere safe to sleep? Could they pay their bills? And if not, did they want help solving those problems?
After the first few people they approached said no, they noticed one woman in a wheelchair, periodically glancing over at them. She rolled herself over and asked what they were doing. They explained the project and asked if she needed help.
“And she just immediately goes, ‘Yeah, I do, because my husband left me to join ISIS,’” Dukkipati remembered. She and the other volunteer were shocked but they had a job to do.
Since 2018, undergraduate students at Duke have volunteered with the program, called Help Desk. The first few cohorts of students spent their volunteer hours at the Lincoln Community Health Center, an organization that serves low-income people on the other side of Durham, away from the Duke campus. There, they mostly spent their time calling people who’d already been referred to social service agencies by caseworkers to make sure the patients had been able to access what they needed.
By 2021, the program had expanded into the ER at Duke with the help of emergency medicine physician John Purakal.
“The idea behind it,” he said, “was that we are going to address [patients’] unmet social needs in parallel with their medical care.”