When Gabriel Carrillo joined the Navy in 2005 at age 19, he was already interested in medicine. So, becoming a hospital corpsman who deployed with the Marines to Afghanistan was the right preparation for this son of a Cuban immigrant.

His father became a U.S. citizen and served two tours with the Army in Vietnam. Carrillo was following in his footsteps.

Believing people come out of adverse situations with new insight and breadth, Carrillo’s military experience, including the leadership skills he learned, led him to enlist his fellow medical students to help vaccinate thousands of Veterans at Durham VA Medical Center’s COVID-19 Vaccine Blitz.

He did this while pursuing both his medical and law degrees at Duke University.

Dr. Genevieve Embree and her team were planning a weekend-long mass vaccination for early February. When Carrillo learned of the plan, he immediately recognized the opportunity for Health Professions Trainees (HPT) who trained at the facility to support the effort.

Embree is Durham VA’s Deputy Chief, Office of Public Health and Epidemiology.

“Medical students can hit the ground running”

“Medical students are prime folks to help out and most of us are well trained in CPRS (VA Computerized Patient Record System), and can hit the ground running,” explained Carrillo. “Plus, all the students are COVID-19 tested repeatedly.”

Navy Veteran and Duke University medical and law student Gabe Carrillo.

Armed with this knowledge, Carrillo contacted all the Duke medical students who had already trained at VA. He quickly had almost 50 students interested in working the vaccination blitz. Then he created a spreadsheet to track which students had access to CPRS and who needed access and training. After that, he worked with Dr. Embree and Voluntary Service to reactivate accounts and complete training requirements for all within just four days.

Medical students helped vaccinate over 2,850 Veterans

A total of 21 medical students helped vaccinate more than 2,850 Veterans at the first Durham VAMC COVID-19 Vaccine Blitz held the weekend of Feb. 6 and 7.

Pictured above, Marine Vietnam Veteran Chris Casey receives his COVID-19 vaccine at Durham VA Medical Center’s Vaccine Blitz clinic.

Carrillo is quick to point out that it was the Durham VA staff who planned the vaccination clinic. Embree is equally quick to point out the importance of having the trainees volunteer.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many health care workers,” said Embree. “We were very grateful to learn that many employees were willing to work on the weekend for a vaccine blitz, but we fell short of our target number of vaccinators.

“Gabe Carrillo contacted our Public Affairs team and offered a pool of medical students to volunteer who could not only assist with the clinic flow but could actually vaccinate Veterans while working under a supervising physician.”

Adding the students to the workforce increased the blitz capacity from 3,000 to 4,000 Veterans who could be vaccinated in a weekend. When the medical center held its second vaccination blitz the weekend of Feb. 27 and 28, they added appointment slots for an additional 1,400 Veterans to receive their first dose of the vaccine.

Durham VA and Duke School of Medicine valuable partners

And now, MD, JD student Carrillo, whose interests in both infectious disease and national security law correlate directly to issues around the pandemic, is recruiting again.

He is recruiting this time from Duke medical students, law students and students at Duke’s other professional schools. Carrillo’s work brought more than 30 students to support the mass vaccination effort, an effort Duke University’s School of Medicine is proud to be part of.

“The Durham VA has been a valuable partner to the Duke School of Medicine education programs,” said Dr. Edward Buckley, Vice Dean for Education, Duke School of Medicine. “I can speak from direct knowledge as I received a significant portion of my medical training at the Durham VA hospital. The physicians, nurses, staff, and most of all the patients, are outstanding educators and provide a learning experience which is second to none.”

Learning public health emergency response

Both Carrillo and Embree hope to see more VA medical centers utilize trainees to help vaccinate Veterans. They know the students’ experiences serving Veterans on the front lines during the pandemic will impact them for years to come.

“I hope the students take pride in how they are able to make a difference in ending this pandemic sooner by helping staff large vaccination clinics,” said Embree. “What I think is even more important is learning what it’s like to be part of the response during a public health emergency.”

VA’s Acting Chief Academic Affiliations Officer Dr. Karen M. Sanders, agrees. “Gabe Carrillo and his fellow medical students are great examples of how our Health Professions Trainees are putting their training to work in a very unique pandemic situation. The experience these trainees are gaining and the contributions they are making to the health of our Veterans will benefit the trainees, the patients and our nation for years to come.”


Tonya C. Lobbestael is a public affairs officer for the Office of Academic Affiliations.

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