Published February 4, 2016
Two students in the University at Buffalo’s medical education program have founded a nonprofit organization to provide clothing to victims of frostbite.
Steve Gangloff and Chelsey Ciambella were shocked to find out how common amputations were among some populations — mostly the homeless and those who have a psychiatric illness. The leading causes were frostbite and diabetes.
They founded Prescription for Warmth after finding out most of the frostbite patients they were seeing during their rotation in vascular surgery at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) did not own hats or gloves.
“I was struck by the fact that the disfiguring surgery was easily preventable with proper winter apparel,” Ciambella says. “It was clear there was an opportunity to better serve our community.”
The two students are inductees of the Richard Sarkin Medical Emeritus Faculty Chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS), the national honor society of peer-selected medical students who exemplify compassion and humanism toward patients and their fellow classmates.
“Steve and Chelsey identified this need, providing protection from frostbite for our area’s vulnerable individuals, many of whom I treat as an inpatient psychiatrist,” Hernandez said. “They not only thought of the idea, but they made it happen.”
The students obtained a donation from the Richard T. Sarkin Foundation for Medical Education, which supports GHHS students.
Marcia Sarkin, who runs the foundation in memory of her late husband, a professor of pediatrics, said its board was supportive of the concept and solicited additional donations from alumni.
“Steve and Chelsey didn’t just have the idea; they also made sure that when they graduate, Prescription for Warmth will continue,” she says.
Gangloff and Ciambella often treat frostbite at the Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic, a nonprofit, drop-in clinic for uninsured patients that is managed, funded and staffed by UB medical students and faculty-physicians.
Through an effort with ECMC and Lighthouse, Prescription for Warmth has thus far provided about 600 frostbite patients with hats and gloves. Due to increased donations, patients now also receive thermal socks, lip balm and information on how to avoid frostbite in the future.
Gangloff recalls how one of the worst cases he saw at ECMC was a homeless man who had fallen asleep in the snow.
“This patient had deep frostbite in all 10 of his fingers, meaning the tissue was completely dead,” he says. “He required an above-the-knuckle amputation of every finger, including his thumbs. The surgery ultimately saved his life, because the necrotic tissue can cause sepsis and death if not treated promptly.”
After surgery, the patient required in-hospital physical and occupational therapy to learn how to use eating utensils specially designed for amputees.
“He was a grateful, kind and humble man who was very appreciative of the help we gave him,” Gangloff says. “This encounter was one of my most emotionally moving experiences in medical school.”