Diehard Terps fans might remember Varun Ram ’15, M.S. ’16 as the walk-on whose defensive stop helped Maryland basketball defeat Valparaiso in the 2015 NCAA tournament’s second round. Now he’s leading a new team against a different kind of opponent.

The former guard is the D.C./Baltimore lead for Connect for COVID-19, an initiative that seeks to gather smart devices and chargers and donate them to health care facilities, allowing coronavirus patients to communicate with loved ones despite no-visitor policies. Combined with teams in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and more, the campaign has raised over $45,000 to purchase devices and has donated more than 500.

Varun Ram dribbling basketball“Anything in isolation isn’t really the best way to heal. You want to be connected,” Ram said. “Our goal is to make sure we’re donating these devices to the patients and facilities that need it the most.”

Ram, a consultant at Deloitte, first heard about Connect for COVID-19 through a colleague, Raj Singh, who launched the initiative with his brother Sunny Sandhu. Friends in medical school told the siblings, Princeton University graduates, that many patients—especially the elderly and those from low-income communities—were unable to communicate with family or friends during their hospital stays. They secured a donation of 50 laptops from Princeton and delivered them in April to Penn Medicine.

The effort took off from there, with the team expanding and partnering with hospital IT departments in coronavirus hotspots across the country. People can contribute their own used devices or give to the cause’s GoFundMe campaign, with donations going toward purchasing tablets, smartphones and laptops for patients. 

Ram’s group made its first delivery to Howard University Hospital last month: 12 Amazon tablets and five iPhones.

“The nurses are very happy because they want to make sure there’s a point of contact for the patients,” said Janice Murphy, director of IS operations at Howard University Hospital. “It’s important to keep patients motivated and have them know someone is rooting for them. This is a great tool to be able to help keep that going.”

Now Ram and his team are working with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to identify the city’s health care facilities—including nursing homes—with the most need. They hope to spread the campaign throughout D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia, and they’re collecting testimonials from those who have received devices so far to help encourage others to get involved.

“We really want to document the impact,” Ram said. “Once people see that impact, they’re more willing to donate.”

And although no one knows for sure how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, Ram hopes the devices can still be used long-term for telehealth, connecting patients to providers digitally.

“There’s a bigger play,” he said. “(Connect for COVID-19 is) a community—that’s the beauty of it. That’s what’s been so gratifying to see.”